The No. 1 factor in Italy's social equilibrium: The Family. The postwar economic-boom generation of prudent savers is lovingly maintaining those that followed. Grandparents care for grandchildren, while parents help finance, or even buy, that first home for just-married children. And young Italians may be just as inclined to live at home with mom and dad well into their 30s, with no social stigma. An organic extension of family is "campanilismo" â¿¿ a fierce loyalty to the village bell-tower â¿¿ which has meant that Italians look out for each other in their home communities, which are often better suited than the state to find the best ways to help those in need.

Experts see good and bad in this Italian way of life.

On the one hand, it has helped to maintain not only social stability, but also high living standards, in Italy's worst economic crisis since the end of World War II. On the other, it has been a social crutch that has eroded competitiveness, sapped opportunity for young people and perhaps put Italy on the path of long-term â¿¿ if decidedly genteel â¿¿ decline.

Tableaus of daily life in Italian towns and cities provide abundant evidence of social buffers at play.

Italy's vast network of volunteers offer services at little or no cost, with such organizations as retired corps of Alpine soldiers staffing recycling centers or managing parking at public events in exchange for a fraction of what it would cost to contract out the job.

Visit any Italian playground on a workday, particularly in the wealthy north, and small children are tended by a grandmother or grandfather, supplementing a paucity of daycare for children under 3 and providing after-school care for older children â¿¿ mostly so mothers can work. Research by the IRES think tank finds that this help sustains the employment of 800,000 women â¿¿ who in turn generate 2.4 percent of GDP.

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