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Is the EU to blame for Italy’s falling birth rate?

The (Italian) kids aren't alright. Credit: Getty

October 18, 2023 - 10:00am

Italy’s youth is vanishing. A recent report from the national statistics agency, Istat, revealed that Italy is the country with the fewest people aged 18-34 in proportion to its population of any country in the European Union. Just in the past 20 years, the number of young people has dropped by nearly a quarter. 

This is due to the country’s birth rate falling off a cliff: in 2022, for the first time, the number of annual births fell below 400,000 as deaths soared to 700,000. The new births are therefore well below the replacement rate — the number of newborns needed to keep the population the same from one generation to the next — and have been for about a decade. As a result, every year Italy’s population shrinks by about 200,000 people. But the problem dates back to the mid-Nineties: the number of people aged 18-34 peaked in 1994, and has been declining ever since. 

Italy is an extreme case of a phenomenon extending across the West (and to some extent globally), which has both cultural and biological causes. People either don’t want kids — because, for instance, they value their career and freedom above setting up a family — or they are unable to have them, due to declining fertility. Insofar as these cases are concerned, reversing the demographic trend is very hard. 

But this is only part of the story. In many Western countries, there are also lots of people who would like to have children but postpone parenthood, sometimes indefinitely, for strictly socioeconomic reasons. In Italy, several studies have shown that the top-ranking reasons couples give for not having kids are the excessive resulting costs, income insecurity (fear of losing one’s job) and lack of family support services (such as early childhood and childcare services). 

This is hardly surprising. Italy’s economy has been stagnating for the past 20 years, with a youth unemployment rate of over 20%. Wages are among the lowest in the bloc, and more than five million people — almost 10% of the population — live in absolute poverty. This is largely a result of the “legal and policy superstructure” imposed by the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, which paved the way for a policy of perpetual fiscal austerity and wage restraint. 

The good news is that there is nothing inevitable about the current demographic trend in Italy and elsewhere and, with the right set of macroeconomic policies, it could be at least partly reversed. The problem is that this means challenging the dominant economic orthodoxy — which, in the EU’s case, is hardwired into the “economic constitution” of the bloc, and of the single currency in particular. 

And this is where many “pro-family” conservative politicians — like Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni — fall short. 

Meloni, who claims to lead a “patriotic and pro-family government”, has vowed to combat Italy’s demographic woes. Speaking at the Budapest Demographic Summit last month, she said that the government’s “primary objective is to initiate a substantial cultural change”. The implication here is that Italians aren’t having kids because they aren’t sufficiently “pro-family”, or because they have been corrupted by woke culture. This is risible — and ultimately reveals the emptiness of much current anti-woke and national conservative rhetoric. 

Italians don’t need to be reminded that “we are all born of a man and a woman.” They need well-paid, stable jobs; efficient, accessible family services; and, if necessary, income support. Yet Meloni’s first measure in office was to eliminate the income support scheme introduced by the Five Star Movement — the only thing keeping many Italians out of extreme poverty. And the latest budget approved by the government contains nothing but timid, piecemeal “pro-parenthood” measures, to be financed within the tight fiscal margin sanctioned by the European Commission. The impact on the country’s birth rates will be negligible. 

Ultimately, there’s only one “pro-family” policy capable of truly reversing the trend: a radical overhaul of the failed neoliberal policies of the past twenty years. But banging on about “family values” is admittedly cheaper.


Thomas Fazi is an UnHerd columnist and translator. His latest book is The Covid Consensus, co-authored with Toby Green.

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Daniel P
Daniel P
9 months ago

I chalk this all up to the stupidity/arrogance of academic economists and the psychopathy of our financial elite.

We could just go back to the 1980’s and look at two highly influential ideas that changed everything. First, the primacy of enhancing shareholder value in all corporate decision making. Second, the unfettered free trade across the globe was a good thing. The first came out of Harvard. The second, arguably, out of a combination of Harvard and Princeton.

Whole papers could be written on the social impacts of either of those. They also do not stand alone as the only insane or immoral policies to have come out of academia and then been sold and leveraged by the psychopaths that lead most large international companies and their disproportionate influence on government policy but they are representative of the shift in thinking that occurred that would lead to decades of workers being treated as they are today.

The key to this, is that the psychopaths among the financial elite have way way too much influence in government.

It is not the job of CEO’s to manage or worry about the social consequences of their operational decisions. That is the job of government. Government needs to be a check on CEO’s but it has been captured through corruption.

Until we get to the point where workers have the financial wherewithal and the time to have a raise a family properly, this will continue. That is going to require breaking the influence of big business and academia in government.

Jacqueline Walker
Jacqueline Walker
9 months ago
Reply to  Daniel P

This seems to be the implied conclusion of the paper linked to in the article as well.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
9 months ago

The bloc wants to import a renewed population from across the Med rather than encourage current Europeans to have children. This is the Millennial version of multiculturalism and the 30somethings are starting to move into positions of power in Brussels and beyond.

Richard M
Richard M
9 months ago
Reply to  Tyler Durden

You will not stop immigration. There are areas of Italy and other European countries which are to all intents and purposes depopulating. Humans will migrate to them from areas where there is pressure on resources due to environmental conditions, overpopulation or conflict, as they always have.

James Knight
James Knight
8 months ago
Reply to  Richard M

We can stop immigration if we cant. Controlled Immigration is great however, we are now importing poverty.

Mark Goodhand
Mark Goodhand
9 months ago

The issue must be primarily cultural.
Italians may be poor by European standards, but they’re still rich by historical standards.

Matt M
Matt M
9 months ago
Reply to  Mark Goodhand

The issue is almost entirely cultural. My mum and dad (in England) married each other at 22 and 24 years of age respectively and had the first of their three kids when they were 24 and 26.
My wife and I went through the same milestones when we were 10 years older than them and had only one child (after significant difficulty conceiving).
There is no way we were poorer or in any way disadvantaged compared to my parents. The reason for the delay was just that there was no expectation to settle down and start a family in our early/mid twenties. In fact the reverse was true you were encouraged to “make the most” of your twenties.
If society wants more kids we need to re-assert the pressure for couples to meet, marry and have children earlier in life.
In other words, this sentence from the article is entirely wrong:

The implication here is that Italians aren’t having kids because they aren’t sufficiently “pro-family”, or because they have been corrupted by woke culture. This is risible — and ultimately reveals the emptiness of much current anti-woke and national conservative rhetoric. 

Last edited 9 months ago by Matt M
Billy Bob
Billy Bob
9 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

However, I’ll wager your parents could afford to buy a house whilst in their early twenties, most likely on a single wage and while raising a family.
Would your salary alone when you were early twenties have been enough to buy a family home similar to your parents, while also having enough to raise children? I know for a fact mine wouldn’t have been, so perhaps we’re not as well off as our parents were

Anthony Rice
Anthony Rice
9 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

The cost of housing and a roof over one’s head , drains the family’s budget. Plus too many other distractions these days.

Anthony Rice
Anthony Rice
9 months ago
Reply to  Mark Goodhand

Fat lot of use that is.

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
9 months ago

It’s access to birth control. If you look at the historical birth rates as a chart, within two to three years of birth control being legalized, most countries see an almost precipitous drop in new births. There’s usually a slight decline before, as pressure mounts for access to the Pill, but the steep decline is immediately afterwards.

Martin Butler
Martin Butler
9 months ago

So let’s ban birth control!

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
9 months ago
Reply to  Martin Butler

Just start banning things. I’ll tell you when to stop.

Richard M
Richard M
9 months ago

As a result, every year Italy’s population shrinks by about 200,000 people. But the problem dates back to the mid-Nineties: the number of people aged 18-34 peaked in 1994, and has been declining ever since.

This is hardly surprising. Italy’s economy has been stagnating for the past 20 years, 

The near-decade between these two facts is significant. The decline in birth rates began well before stagnation. In fact Italian Total Fertility Rate (a better measure of long term trends) fell below replacement level of 2.1 births per adult woman as long ago as the late 1970s.
The lesson here is that people’s reported reluctance to have children in uncertain economic times is actually just a paradoxical ripple in the overall trend. It is prosperity, better childhood survival rates and, particularly, improvements in women’s conditions which are mostly responsible for the longer term decline in birth rates.
This happens so consistently across all nations and cultures that we can confidently rely on it as a kind of universal demographic law.
Of course, things like improved childhood mortality rates and women’s education are in themselves very good things. However, the decline in TFR across Western European countries has massive implications for public policy because our economies are built on the premise that the current generation of productive workers will pay for the non-productive retired, sick and so forth.
Some countries are explicitly or informally filling the gap with immigration, but that in itself of course brings challenges.

Last edited 9 months ago by Richard M
Martin Butler
Martin Butler
9 months ago

To those who say it’s cultural are being too simplistic. Referencing parents and grandparents who had kids in poverty misses the point. Clearly we can’t recreate the culture of the 50s and before. But we can create the conditions in which those who are of this culture – ie young people of today – are more likely to have children. And that is exactly what the author of this piece was saying. Banging on about ‘family values’ and how awful feminism is (standard stuff for Unherd) is not going to help one jot. In fact in the UK at least, the present Tory party couldn’t be more anti- family. You try and get somewhere secure to live to start a family on average wages in modern Britain without serious money from mum and dad.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
9 months ago
Reply to  Martin Butler

My parents and grandparents raised families of 6 and 7 on a single average wage. Both were able to buy modest family homes, and neither mum/nan worked until all the kids had started school and even then it was only part time.
Good luck doing that these days!

Hibernian Caveman
Hibernian Caveman
9 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

I remember someone saying that it all began when they started offering mortgages based on two person’s incomes.
Around that time people started using the term “gazumping”.

Last edited 9 months ago by Hibernian Caveman
Geoff Haigh
Geoff Haigh
9 months ago

Little wonder we have a low poulation growth rate when so many children are aborted each year. Strange isn’t it that not one of your commentators mentions this in trying to explain low birth rate. According to the WHO, induced abortion worldwide is 73 million per year. In Britain alone nearly 10 million abortions hve taken place since abortion was legalised in UK. These fiugures will inevitably increase as home abortion through efforts of BPAS & other abortion agencies supply the abortion pill virtually on demand and often with little or no medical supervision. By the way statistics on abortion at home are not recorded routinely by Government.

Arkadian X
Arkadian X
9 months ago

Not sure if I would go down the income support route, lest Italy turns into part of the UK (and still with a poor birth rate).

David Morley
David Morley
9 months ago

Do we have firm evidence that it is the poor (rather than the better off) who are failing to have children. This seems to be assumed by the article.

Thomas Fazi
Thomas Fazi
9 months ago
Reply to  David Morley

In Italy’s case economic insecurity is one of the main factors, studies and polls show. Elsewhere it might different.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
9 months ago
Reply to  David Morley

Not the “poor” so much as the in-between class; middle-class upbringing and expectations, but not enough sense of security in terms of future income. I see it all around me; couples with enough income to have a nice enough life. But if you added two kids into the mix it would be pretty hellish. Exhausting and nerve racking.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
9 months ago

It’s wrong to single out Italy. This phenomenon exists across the developed world. And the answer isn’t economic. A much better researched article explains all.
https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/the-real-reason-for-falling-birth-rates/

Lone Wulf
Lone Wulf
9 months ago

Are there any studies comparing high and low income birthrates? If there are no differences then cultural factors should be considered seriously.
A radical overhaul of failed neoliberal policies may not be sufficient.

Last edited 9 months ago by Lone Wulf
H W
H W
9 months ago

Italy is another victim of “DEFAMILIALIZATION” policy (or ‘post- familialism’ or ‘post-maternalism’), the neo-lib/con anti-family policy trend aimed at dismantling the post-war ‘familialist’ welfare state. Former policy reduced taxes on, and provided money directly to, families with dependent children. Since mid-1990s welfare reform , gov’ts increasingly reduce direct funding to families and transfer money meant for children & parents to ‘services’ like daycare and workfare McJobs-for-mums programs run by unionized gov’t staff, corporations, and so-called non-profit organization.
The OECD calls this the ‘reconciliation agenda’ : reconcile all citizens’ imagined obligation to have full time jobs with child rearing obligations. This impossible goal is to be achieved through coercing parents with massively increased non-parental group child care, regardless of parents – especially mothers – want or what children need or the ample peer-reviewed research showing long term harms to children’s outcomes from more time in group care.
The policy is sold as “work-life balance” and “gender equity” and giving children “the best start in life”. The goal is to put all mothers and fathers of dependent children in full time GDP-sector jobs in order to give corporations and unions more money, lower wages, and increase demand for daycare and frozen food and ‘supports’ for time-stressed families. In-depth article athttps://kidsfirstcanada.files.wordpress.com/2020/03/defamilialization.pdf

Lone Wulf
Lone Wulf
9 months ago
Reply to  H W

I wonder if there are any parallels between the OCDE and the consulting industry.

Ben Shipley
Ben Shipley
9 months ago

In days of yore, contraception didn’t exist, abortion was illegal, and the only real social safety net was a large family full of children you could put to work. Not to mention that without TV, there wasn’t much else to do at night. Which of those circumstances should we pine away after?

Kat L
Kat L
9 months ago
Reply to  Ben Shipley

It will end up that people regret not having big families to stand as a bulwark against what is to come.

Graeme Archer
Graeme Archer
9 months ago

.

Last edited 9 months ago by Graeme Archer