More bambini, please!
In late 2021, Britain’s prestigious Econo-mist magazine honored Italy by calling it the country of the year. It recognized Italy’s improved economy and effective handling of the COVID-19 crisis. During his end-of-year message to the Italian people, Italian President Sergio Mattarella lamented what he called the “troubling” demographic situation. Pope Francis urged his flock to save the family, by having children instead of pets.
Italy has the second oldest population in the world. Japan is first. Other indicators are equally pessimistic. It has the highest percentage of people over 65, 23.2 percent, compared to other European countries. In the United States the figure is 16 percent. It is projected that the population of Italy will decrease by 20 percent in 30 years. At the beginning of 2021 the population was estimated to be 59.2 million. The predicted drop would mean Italy’s population will be 48 million 2050.
The depopulation of major portions of the national territory is already underway. It is estimated that 6,000 villages have no people, while 15,000 lost over 95 percent of their inhabitants. Vegetation is overtaking structures built hundreds of years ago, much like what happened to Rome during the dark ages. Unimpeded by people, wolves are attacking livestock and visiting cities.
What accounts for this state of affairs? In 2020 the population went down by 342,000, the worst decline since the Spanish flu of 1918. The birth rate was 1.27 percent. It’s been in constant decline since 1965, when 1 million bambini were born. The pandemic will have its own noxious effect. Forecasts for 2021 were that the number would fall below 400,000. Why fewer bambini? Experts point to two major causes. One is that the state has assumed some of the responsibilities that the family traditionally had. More women are working, thus delaying or limiting the number of children. These patterns are not unique to Italy; they apply globally.
The consequences of such drastic decline are clear. The most serious is that the burden of dependency becomes less sustainable. This is the proportion of people working versus those who are retired and pulling social security benefits. In 2021, 44.2 percent were working to support 56.8 percent not in the working age. By comparison in the United States, 53.85 percent supported 46.15 percent.
Sustaining the social state (the Italian term for welfare state) becomes increasingly difficult with a declining population. Continuing decline is likely to reduce real estate values, while a smaller work force will reduce economic growth and endanger Italy’s competitiveness in the global economy. Population is power. A smaller Italy would affect its foreign policy, its defense, and its relationship with the rest of the world.
The Italian parliament is implementing legislation called the Family Act, a packet of measures which would provide financial incentives to have children, such as 250 euros per child, from 7 months in the womb to 21 years of age, family leave, money to buy school materials, and assistance to working women. It remains to be seen whether the well-intentioned measures will reverse the decline. Population changes take a long time to reverse.
Italy has deeply influenced the world with its culture. The veritable museum has 75 percent of the antiquities of Europe. Its bella vita fascinates and invites visitors from all over. What will it look like in 2050? More bambini, please!
Dr. Gabriele Marcella
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