(By Emily Backus) Rome, May 22 - Around quarter of Italians are facing economic hardship as the country endures its longest recession in over 20 years and almost one in four of the nation's young people are reluctantly idle, Istat said on Wednesday. Italy has the highest proportion of young people doing ''nothing'' in Europe, with almost a quarter of 15-to-29-year-olds not in education, employment or training (NEET), the national statistics agency said in its annual report. It said that 2.25 million 15-to-29-year-olds were NEETs in 2012, 23.9% of the total, an increase of 100,000 on 2011. The percentage of people in this age group actively seeking a job was 25.2% in 2012, compared to 20.5% in 2011. The number of 15-to-29-year-olds studying in 2012 was stable at around four million or 41.5%. Almost 15 million people - a quarter of the population - were living in some form of economic hardship at the end of 2012, Istat said in its report. Serious economic hardship afflicted 8.6 million, 14.3% - more than twice as many as the 6.9% who faced this situation in 2010. Istat said it took many factors into account when determining whether a person is in hardship - whether they have savings to meet unexpected outlays; whether they can afford a week on holiday away from home; whether they are behind on payments for their mortgage or rent; whether they can afford an adequate protein-rich meal every two days; whether they can afford to adequately heat their homes, and whether they have money to buy items such as a car and a washing machine. Istat said 16.6% could not afford an adequate meal every two days, three times as many as two years ago. Over half, 50.4%, could not afford a week on holiday away from home, compared to 46.7% in 2011. The agency added that the tax burden climbed 16.1% to its highest level since 1990 last year, following a series of hikes and new taxes introduced in 2012 by former premier Mario Monti's technocrat government to steer Italy out of the centre of the eurozone crisis. It said this pushed the percentage of the average family's disposable income that went to taxes and social security up to 30.3% in 2012, compared to 29.4% in 2011, while disposable income itself fell 2.2%. The purchasing power of Italian families fell with ''with exceptional intensity'' by 4.8% in 2012, a rate not seen since the early 1990s. From 2008 to 2012, a net total of 506,000 jobs were lost while the stability of the jobs created or remaining was undermined, the report said. Since the beginning of the crisis five years ago, 950,000 ''regular'' jobs have been lost, meaning full-time, permanent jobs. Part-time jobs grew by 425,000. In 2012 alone, 410,000 full-time jobs were lost and 253,000 part-time jobs added, and 89,000 ''atypical'' arrangements created - a category that includes outside collaborators and temporary contracts. Since the end of 2011, when interest rates on Italian sovereign debt went through the roof, credit to businesses has been squeezed. Small businesses have felt the brunt of the crunch, and are twice as likely to see loans turned down as medium-sized businesses. Despite Italy's severe economic and employment woes, over half of Italians polled did not feel that migrants living in the country were biting into the slim job market. Some 61.4% of those surveyed in Istat's annual report said that ''immigrants are necessary to do work that Italians do not want to do,'' while 62.9% do not believe that foreigners living in the country are ''taking work away''. While 86.7% of those polled believe that everyone should have the right to live in ''any country they choose'', half of them did maintain that Italians should be chosen first over foreigners for employment openings. Italian President Giorgio Napolitano commented on the Istat report in a message on Wednesday, saying Italy must ''create the conditions for economic recovery that offers - especially to the youngest generations - concrete prospects of work in the context of sustainable and fair growth''. Napolitano added that the Istat report ''constitutes an opportunity to examine deeply the evolution of our country'' and ''can furnish policy decision makers important (information) support, helping (them) understand the crisis's effects on businesses and families and to identify possible lines of action''.