Giorgia Meloni isn't challenging the bloc's economic orthodoxy
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.