In 2012, the Melis family entered the Guinness World Records for having the highest combined age of any nine living siblings on earth — today more than 825 years. Sustained by good genes, fresh air, healthy food, physical exercise, quick wit and powerful family bonds, the Melises have become elderly symbols of a Mediterranean way of life that is the envy of the world.
But scroll down through the generations and another pattern emerges. Few of the nine Melis siblings have formal education beyond fifth grade. (Claudina and Consolata stopped at the second.) Many of their children have high school or university degrees and are now retired from public or private sector jobs. And their children, the ones born after 1970, generally have university degrees — and are struggling to find work.
With older people in the Mediterranean living longer and longer lives — and with fertility rates low and youth unemployment soaring in Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal — experts warn that Europe’s debt crisis is exacerbating a growing demographic crisis. In the coming years, they warn, there will be fewer workers paying into the social security system to support the pensions of older generations.
As he stood outside the Church of St. Peter’s after the birthday Mass, wearing a red, green and white tricolor sash, the mayor of Perdasdefogu, Mariano Carta, 44, acknowledged the issue. “Absolutely, we’re in big trouble,” he said. “We may have good air, but without work, we can’t survive.”
High up in the mountains of eastern Sardinia, Perdasdefogu, whose economy revolves around an Italian military base now under scrutiny for possible uranium contamination, has lost 500 inhabitants in the past 20 years, its population dropping to 2,000 people. Today it has two pensioners for every worker, an average age of 47 and an unemployment rate of about 25 percent. “If we go on like this, the system won’t hold up for long,” Mr. Carta said.
Between 2001 and 2011, the number of centenarians in Italy rose 138 percent, and that of nonagenarians, or people in their 90s, rose 78 percent. In 2011, the most recent year in the official statistics, 20 percent of Italians were over the age of 65.
The Melis siblings were all born in Perdasdefogu to Francesco Melis and Eleonora Mameli, who had a general store. Consolata, 105, is the oldest; then Claudina, 100; Maria, 98; Antonino, 94; Concetta, 92; Adolfo, 90; Vitalio, 87; Fida Vitalia, 81; and Mafalda, the baby at 79. Their descendants now account for about a third of the village.
The siblings remember when malaria was rampant in Sardinia before it was eradicated with the help of the United States after the Second World War. They remember the time before Perdasdefogu got electricity in the 1950s, and before it had running water. “We used to have to carry a bucket to the well,” said Claudina, sitting at home among family members a day before her birthday.
“Young people today don’t know what it is to work,” she said. She meant that they had not known hard physical labor. But the remark could just as easily apply to Italy’s youth unemployment rate, which is 38 percent. Many qualified Italians leave for better jobs abroad in a brain drain that weighs on the country’s mood and economy.
Stefano Lai, 27, one of Claudina’s many grandchildren, grew up in Cagliari, the capital of Sardinia, and is now doing a postdoctoral fellowship in biomedical engineering at the prestigious Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna in Pisa. He would like to stay in Sardinia, or even in Italy, but does not have his hopes up.
“Leaving Sardinia was hard for me,” Mr. Lai said. “To leave Italy would be hard, but maybe it’s inescapable,” he added. “The opportunities are few, at least in my field.”
Standing outside the church after the Mass, Stefano’s parents, Italo Lai, 77, who retired from a job in public health, and Marina Caria, 68, were saddened at the prospect. “It’s a brain drain,” Ms. Caria said. “We hope that maybe they can find something to keep them,” she added, referring to the three-month-old coalition government of Prime Minister Enrico Letta, who has said that tackling youth unemployment is a priority.
“Living your life near the ones you love is priceless compared to having to leave, even for work,” Stefano Lai said. His cousin Alberto, 19, who lives in Perdasdefogu, agreed.