Falling birthrates challenge Italy – and Europe

JON VAN HOUSEN and MARIELLA RADAELLI

The population of Italy declined by 96,000 last year as the country’s birthrate fell below half a million for the second consecutive year, according to just released figures from the national statistics agency ISTAT.

Low birthrates have been making headlines for years as Italy battled a prolonged recession, but the trend actually began long before. The biggest drop came between 1970 and 1990, when the average number of births by women of childbearing age fell from 2.38 to 1.33.
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Many in search of the answer look to the economic crisis that began in 2008, but it appears cultural factors and changing roles for men and women began to shape the trend long before.
And it isn’t only Italy. Countries across Europe have long been registering low birthrates. The population of Spain has been shrinking since 2012 as on average every woman of childbearing age has 1.27 children compared to the EU average of 1.55. Germany had the lowest birthrate in the world between 2008 and 2013, some 8.2 per 1,000 people, according to a study by the Hamburg World Economy Institute.

Though higher than many countries in Europe, the birthrate in France was an average of 1.93 children per woman in 2016, the lowest since 1976, according to France's National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies.

The demographics in Western Europe have set off alarm bells as the region faces an aging population, nagging economic doldrums and an influx of refugees.

Many in search of the answer look to the economic crisis that began in 2008, but it appears cultural factors and changing roles for men and women began to shape the trend long before.

“The reasons why Italy and Spain have low fertility are complex, and not only related to the problematic economic developments over the last decade,” says Sebastian Klüsener, a research scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, Germany. “A factor that western Germany, Italy and Spain have in common that they are laggards in the introduction of family policies that support parents to reconcile family and career goals.”

Though it is led by a woman, statistics show Germany retains a male-dominated outlook on family life and work, with the husband often the breadwinner and the traditional hausfrau at home raising children. Maria Saab, a research fellow at the New America Foundation, notes that “despite having a female chancellor and quotas requiring a third of non-executive board members be women, in Germany just 15 percent of senior roles are held by women”.

As a result, Germany does not have a well-established program for widespread childcare outside the home. German women seem to see it as a decision between either having either a career or children.

In Italy and Spain, the economic crisis did take a toll. Figures from Eurostat in 2015 showed that 66 percent of Italians aged from 18 to 34 years old still lived with their parents instead of starting their own nuclear family. Spain has a net exodus of youth leaving in search of better job prospects.

The picture is brighter in northern Europe with “many countries close to replacement levels (of around 2 children per woman), where a generation of daughters would replace a generation of mothers,” says Klüsener. Though lower than historic levels, the birthrate in France too is also at almost “replacement” levels.

“Researchers believe that the rather high fertility rate in France is indeed linked to the fact that the country introduced very early family policies which supported parents in the reconciliation of family and career goals,” he says.

Low birthrates combined with an aging population have long-term planners concerned. Can a diminishing workforce continue to fund Europe’s enlightened health and retirement programs?

Klüsener, for one, has a sanguine outlook. “Human societies are quite adaptive. Otherwise they would have not managed the massive increase in the world population over the last 100 years,” he says “It is likely that human societies will also be able to cope with population shrinking and aging. Retirement programs can sustain if politicians manage to implement reforms to make the retirement systems resilient to population aging.”

Some wonder if Europe’s influx of refugees can provide the additional working population needed. According Germany’s statistical office Destatis, the country’s total population rose by 978,000 in 2015 as “the result of a high net immigration”. The newcomers boosted Germany’s GDP by 0.25 percentage points, said the Berlin-based DIW economic institute.

But Olga Poetzsch, a spokesperson for Destatis, notes the overall trend remains a declining population. “Developments that might prevent high numbers in the deficit of births are currently not in sight,” she says.

And actually integrating refugees as useful, productive members of society remains a difficult hurdle.

Judy Dempsey, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Institute in Europe and editor in chief of Strategic Europe, writes that “the EU has in the past few decades become a prosperity-distributing mechanism, (but) it unquestionably needs to be reintegrated around certain values”.

“George Orwell once wrote bitterly that intellectuals do not want to change the world, but to accuse it. In the case of integrating refugees, Europeans should perhaps be less intellectual. There is a need for a cool head, specific aid, and educational programs — not only for refugees from countries like Syria, but also for European citizens, who need to understand the new situation.”

This analysis first appeared in the Khaleej Times of Dubai.