Italy and Europe's demographic death spiral

Germany has just overtaken Japan as having the lowest long-term fertility among the world's biggest powers. But it is Italy which has shown the biggest decline in recent years. There used to be children everywhere. Europe is in a demographic death spiral

Too few babies
Tim Hedges
On 17 September 2016 13:04

There is a little joke I have every year on 1st May. I ask an Italian what he is doing and he says ‘nothing, it is the festa del lavoro, the festival of work’.

The Festival of Work is the one day you can’t get anyone to do any work at all (though for the rest of the year Italians are harder working than their reputation suggests).

So I was a little confused when the government announced a festival of fertility and then the Minister of Health, Beatrice Lorenzin, said it was really a festival of infertility. What was an Italian supposed to do on this day (it is on 22nd September)?

Get to it, is the answer: Italy has a serious fertility problem and the government is hoping it can do something about it.

Italy is not the worst: Germany has just overtaken Japan as having the lowest long-term fertility rate among the major powers.

Levels in Portugal and Greece are even lower, but it is Italy which has shown the biggest absolute decline in recent years. There used to be children everywhere. The simplest explanation is that all animals produce fewer young when there is a lower prospect of food and shelter. Whilst this might not fully explain the problem in Germany, it is certainly the case in Italy. Everyone is worried about the economic future (not without good reason).

Italian women are, on average, having their first baby at nearly 31, the oldest in Europe.

The problem is not confined to Italy, of course. The Europe-wide figure used for fertility, known as total fertility, is 1.6 births per thousand women of childbearing age. The required level for replacement of population in an industrialised country (ie with a relatively low death rate) is 2.1.

In France the Total Fertlity rate is 2.01, Britain 1.81, Germany 1.47, Italy 1.37.

But why should we worry? Isn’t it just part of modern civilisation that women work, and that there is no pressure on them to have children if they don’t want to? Yes, but there are two problems.

The first is that with an ageing population, expensive healthcare and particularly pensions, without a continuing supply of young people there are fewer taxpayers supporting too many welfare recipients. in 1950s Italy there were ten people of working age for each pensioner. Now, there are only three to pay for them.

The second is the solution which dare not speak its name. Immigrants tend to be young, and you won’t have another crisis in 40 years’ time because they tend to produce lots of children. It will not have been far from the front of Angela Merkel’s mind, when she welcomed a million immigrants to Germany, that her country is scarcely economically viable without them. It is just that she couldn’t say that.

Concern about immigration is a leitmotif through European politics, in France, Britain, the Netherlands, Scandinavia. It was the principal feature of the recent regional elections in Germany which Merkel lost so badly, and it is a constant worry in Italy.

Giulio Meotti, Cultural Editor of Il Foglio writes that in one generation Europe will be unrecognisable.

The solution, in part, is for western countries to meet the replacement rate of their populations, and this is where Beatrice Lorenzin’s Fertility Day comes in. Unfortunately the way she has gone about it has been at best clumsy.

Adverts in the press have shown a woman clutching an hourglass and the caption ‘Beauty has no age. Fertility does.’ The website shows water dripping with the words ‘fertility is a common good’.

Some have likened the publicity to Mussolini’s attempt at growing the population. Feminists object, and there are mutterings of ‘what about the men, though?’ which doesn’t go well with the Italian man’s ‘latin lover’ image. The figures, doubtless wrongly, suggest the cold British man has a little more lead in the pencil.

But what else to do, other than this fecundity encomium? The immigrants arrive, and poor, infertile Europe has insufficient reason to turn them away. And we know where they are coming from.

As Giulio Meotti writes ‘the fatal meeting between Europe’s falling birthrate and the rise of Islam has already had significant consequences: Europe has turned into an incubator of terrorism; formed a new poisonous anti-Semitism…. Europeans are now importing young people in large numbers from the Middle East to compensate for their lifestyle choices.’

So perhaps two cheers for Beatrice Lorenzin’s Fertility Festival. At least she is doing something.

Tim Hedges, The Commentator's Italy Correspondent, had a career in corporate finance before moving to Rome where he works as a freelancewriter, novelist, and farmer. You can read more of his articles about Italy here

blog comments powered by Disqus