In 2019, before one could even think about the global upheaval that Covid-19 would bring, Pope Francis spoke of a “demographic winter.” The pontiff, data in hand, claimed that in Italy – but not only in Italy – very few children were being born; far too few to safeguard the very concept of the family in the near future.
In fact, at that time, there were 420,084 new births – according to the numbers collected and released by Istat, Italy’s institute of statistics – about 20,000 fewer than the previous year. As early as four years ago, therefore, timely action was deemed necessary, a certain agitation hovered over the issue. Still, the overall picture was not as catastrophic as it is today.
Then came the calamity.
No one could have imagined that the world would be overwhelmed by a pandemic and would also face the consequences of a nefarious conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Those infamous 20,000 fewer births than in 2018 returned, yes, the image of a country that was not growing and was in danger of losing, along the way, the intrinsic value that has always characterized it-both in religious and secular conceptions-but never as much as the 385,000 new births in 2022. Today we look at this figure with sincerely desperate eyes: more than 35 thousand fewer girls and boys than in 2019. A bleak number that requires direct and in-depth analysis.
DENATALITY IN EUROPE
The critical issues that defined denatality in 2019, thus in the pre-pandemic period, are the same as they are now; however, they are much harsher and of complex resolution, considering the aftermath of the pandemic, rising inflation, and, concomitantly, the cost of living. Labor, welfare, opportunity, and social policies-these are the four indicators that determine the growth or decline of the birth rate. The problem, however, is not only about Italy. A recent report by Eurostat, the European statistical institute, notes that between January 1, 2020, and January 1, 2021, the population of the European Union fell by 278,000 people, and, at the same, time the number of births fell significantly, so that in other countries as well, albeit less preponderantly, the risk of a halt in growth is very real. The same Eurostat survey confirms Italy’s low birth rate – 6.8 live births per thousand inhabitants – and provides another piece of information that needs to be taken into account: the average age of mothers, which is around 31.4 years on average.
Taking a step back and looking at the situation outside national borders, let us consider a study published in Pnas. The survey was conducted by demographers Arnstein Aassve, Niccolò Cavalli, Letizia Mencarini and Samuel Plach of Bocconi University in Milan together with Seth Sanders of Cornell University in Ithaca. The intent was to obtain a well-defined picture of birth rates in 22 high-income countries, including Italy. The nations where a major stop was found, in addition to the Bel Paese, are: Hungary, Belgium, Austria, Singapore, Spain and Portugal. In the United States, denatality is also a concern, and not a small one. The common factors, in essence, seem to be economic uncertainty and the welfare system. Where this presents fewer difficulties-such as in Switzerland, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands-the decline in births has been and is less pronounced. The study makes it clear that economic uncertainty is a factor: couples who are in a precarious financial situation and who struggle to see a bright future in this regard put the idea of having children on hold. Clearly, as the research authors point out, the pandemic crisis has played a definitive role. Economic uncertainty has been compounded by apprehension that phenomena such as Covid-19 may recur.
So how do we curb a phenomenon of such magnitude? Before we try to answer that, let’s delve into its root causes so that we have a more complete perspective.
THE POSSIBLE CAUSES
We have already pointed out how crucial the welfare system is. At a national level, family support measures are represented by, for example, the universal single allowance, which is supposed to grant breathing space on the economic level. However, given the data, it seems to be insufficient.
However, it must be made clear that many other factors contribute. The universal single allowance is inevitably linked to economic uncertainty. Even before Covid-19 made its appearance, job insecurity could be defined as a stigma in Italy: young people could not and still cannot find a placement that gives them certainty, so much so that they think they could buy a house and start a family. Since 2020, the severity of the situation has been exacerbated. Recently, the numbers released by Istat determine growth in employment; however, they refer, for the most part, to precarious, seasonal, temporary employment and so on. Here, then, the inability to count on a secure job also casts a huge shadow on the country’s birth rate and growth.
Another issue, for example, is related to the availability of daycare center accommodations; waiting lists are often long and schedules do not always allow parents to be able to manage work and family comfortably.
On a global scale, in addition to the difficulties related to the instability of the labor market, another significant element is also noted: hesitancy toward what the future holds. This discourse should be extended, for example, to the environmental and climate crisis. The fear that the world may change radically and quickly, pushes people to plan less. This affects the birth rate heavily as well. There is also distrust of the actions that countries have taken and will take to deal with the crisis. We are, then, a transitional phase where the digital universe sometimes seems to be taking over from the real one; this also raises quite a few concerns.
Finally, as we had already anticipated, the pandemic has destabilized balances that were already particularly fragile; the fear that something similar might happen, once again, makes young couples more reticent. The key word is, therefore, looking at the phenomenon from different points of view: instability.
Summing up, the most urgent interventions to be implemented should concern economic incentives. There are several countries that are moving for new measures to be introduced that can push couples to regain confidence and think about starting a family, perhaps even a large one.
Support for the birth rate must return to being at the center of the government agenda in Italy and throughout the European Union
The aim is to value the family unit, to take into account how many members the family is composed of.
An interesting measure to introduce, for example, could be about lowering taxation on products needed for child care. Another point on which the programs of the most sensible national and international parties on the subject are based is to ensure economic supports also for municipalities and schools so as to accommodate as many children as possible. In this regard, the establishment of corporate nurseries would be important to grant mothers and fathers the ability to keep their jobs stable while simultaneously staying connected with their children. Finally, introduce concessions and supports on the purchase of a home; a proposal that comes at a highlight considering how much inflation is weighing on the economy and the housing market.
Overall, it is important that future generations have the tools today to build tomorrow; only then can we expect to catch up and close the demographic winter season.