Mismatch between women's wants and social support cause of Italy's demographic woe

Italy is facing a major population challenge in late marriages and low birth rates, as young people struggle to start their own families given low incomes and larger global issues such as war and climate change. Can the conservative party Brothers of Italy convince young people to have more children?
A newborn baby is transported along a corridor of Rome's Santo Spirito Hospital, Italy, on 14 November 2022. (Remo Casilli/Reuters)
A newborn baby is transported along a corridor of Rome's Santo Spirito Hospital, Italy, on 14 November 2022. (Remo Casilli/Reuters)

In December 2023, at a conference organised by the Italian political party Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d'Italia), the world’s richest person Elon Musk urged the crowd to “make more Italians” because it cannot be addressed solely through immigration from other countries. This is not the first time Musk has expressed concern over Italy’s low birth rate. When births in Italy dropped below 400,000 in 2022, Musk later wrote on X (formerly Twitter): “Italy is disappearing!”

Italy experienced a baby boom after World War II. In 1964, Italy recorded over one million births, with an average of 2.7 children per woman. In his 1968 book The Population Bomb, American biologist Paul Ehrlich predicted that by the end of the 20th century, overpopulation would lead to famines and infectious diseases. 

When the United Nation’s first International Conference on Population was convened in 1974, the population of the world had already reached 4 billion; Western countries even called for family planning to control the population explosion.

Results remain to be seen

Fifty years on, Italy is now worried about falling birth rates, an ageing population and a declining population. Media outlets have even described this as a “demographic winter”. 

As baby boomers die out, birth rates have slipped to 6.7 births per 1,000 people, with an average number 1.24 children per woman, which is below the total fertility rate of 2.1 children per woman to maintain a stable population. Mired in negative population growth, Italy now has a population of 59 million that could drop to 48 million by 2070. Think tank Ambrosetti predicts that Italians could disappear in 300 years if death and birth rates are not reversed.

The Brothers of Italy party believes that the decline of the traditional family and the role of a mother has resulted in the country’s low birth rate, as more women pursue professional aspirations rather than motherhood. 

Children sit on the wooden horses of a carousel at a Christmas market in Piazza Navona on 15 December 2023 in Rome, Italy. (Andreas Solaro/AFP)
Children sit on the wooden horses of a carousel at a Christmas market in Piazza Navona on 15 December 2023 in Rome, Italy. (Andreas Solaro/AFP)

Italy’s birth rates have been falling to record lows over the past 20 years. In 2000, there were ten births per 1,000 people; in 2014, there were eight; by 2021, there were just seven births per 1,000 people. Childbearing has again evolved from being an individual choice into a collective problem and social crisis.

Boosting Italy’s birth rate is the main policy of the far-right Brothers of Italy party. The party’s senator, Lavinia Mennuni, said, “My mother always used to tell me… you must always remember that you have the opportunity to do whatever you want, but you must never forget that your first aspiration must be to be a mother yourself.”

However, her comment was criticised as getting women to regress to traditional roles, ignoring the structural problems of modern society that contributed to low birth rates, and making childbearing a woman’s mission instead of a shared responsibility between both men and women.   

The Brothers of Italy party believes that the decline of the traditional family and the role of a mother has resulted in the country’s low birth rate, as more women pursue professional aspirations rather than motherhood. 

Brothers of Italy founder Giorgia Meloni often mentions that she is a “mother” during her campaigns, and actively attends pro-family, pro-life and anti-abortion activities. After she became the country’s first female prime minister in late 2022, she continued encouraging women to have children, lowering VAT rates on diapers, milk powder and car seats; reducing the tax burden on women with at least two children; ensuring free nursery school from the second child onward; and increasing the child bonus for the third child.

The problem lies in the employment environment, and the social welfare network.

Giorgia Meloni, Italy's prime minister, during her annual news conference in Rome, Italy, on 4 January 2024. (Alessia Pierdomenico/Bloomberg)
Giorgia Meloni, Italy's prime minister, during her annual news conference in Rome, Italy, on 4 January 2024. (Alessia Pierdomenico/Bloomberg)

VAT reductions on diapers and milk powder were ineffective and abolished after one year of implementation. Free nursery schools have yet to be implemented, while the effect of other policies remains to be seen.

But data from Italy’s national statistics bureau ISTAT showed that in the first half of 2023, there were 3,500 fewer births than in the same period of 2022, highlighting that Italy’s demographic winter has not warmed up.

Problems in employment and social welfare network

Most Italians still have the traditional mindset that mothers should stay home to look after their children before they are of primary school age. Public childcare and nurseries are uncommon and most primary schools only run for half days because they assume that mothers will be there to pick up their children after school or wait for them at home. Roughly 20% of women quit their jobs within a year of having their first child.

The modern female is not convinced by a moralistic argument promoting the significance of motherhood, and the return of females to the family unit might not necessarily result in more births. It is also wrong for females to have to choose between career and motherhood. The problem lies in the employment environment, and the social welfare network.

Female employment rate in the northeastern city of Bolzano is above 70%, more than the national average of 50%. Due to the availability of public kindergartens, comprehensive medical and social services network, assistance for first-time housing purchase for youths, and a 200 euro (US$219) monthly child benefit until the age of three, Bolzano’s birth rate is at 1.72, higher than the national average of 1.24. In comparison, females in southern Italy have an employment rate below 50%, with birth rates relatively low as well; the lowest recorded at Sardinia, at 0.95 births per woman.

... 46% of Italians want to have two children, while 22% want to have three or more children, but find it hard to do so in reality.  

Besides helping to realise individual potential and encouraging gender equality, having women in employment would also boost economic growth and increase tax revenue, in turn giving the government more financial resources and making them more willing to commit to policies that boost birth rates. The reason for declining birth rates in Italy is not because youths are against having children; according to the ISTAT, 46% of Italians want to have two children, while 22% want to have three or more children, but find it hard to do so in reality.  

Young people are unable to buy or rent a house because of low pay, and females on average leave their parental households at the age of 29, while males leave later at the age of 31. This has some joking that “living with your parents is the best form of contraception”.

Females are delaying the age they start a career and a family, with females having their first child at the average age of 32.4; having children later also makes it harder to have more children. If work or life’s curveballs get in the way, and women put off giving birth and miss the best time to have children, in the end, they will choose not to have children.

However, 1.2 million Italian youths aged 18 to 34 choose to go overseas for work or to pursue further studies, in hopes of securing a better career — many who leave home are more willing to have children. 

A general view shows St Mark's square on 3 September 2023 in Venice. (Gabriel Bouys/AFP)
A general view shows St Mark's Square on 3 September 2023 in Venice. (Gabriel Bouys/AFP)

Meloni said: “Children are the first building block for any kind of future.” Having children represents an extension of life, and is the biggest promise towards the future, but a sense of uncertainty has led to Italians not daring to commit lightly.

In 2020 when pandemic lockdowns kept people at home with nowhere to go, some predicted that this could bring about another baby boom, but the reverse happened, with the number of births declining from 2020 to 2022. The pandemic, the Russia-Ukraine war, the unrest in the Middle East and the worsening extreme climate conditions have all given cause for many young people to be pessimistic about the future, finding it hard to believe that tomorrow will be better, with a radical environmental group even calling itself the “Last Generation”. 

Meloni is against surrogate births, and her party is attempting to enact laws that define it as a “universal crime” — even if it were carried out overseas...

Return to traditional family units impossible 

However, even if birth rates were to recover, it would not address the issues stemming from decades of declining birth rates in the short run. To resolve the pertinent issue of a labour shortage, pension deficit and the heavy burden on the healthcare system, demographers have recommended bringing in immigrants — which Meloni does not welcome.

Meloni is a strong advocate of family values, but what she encourages is the traditional family unit; even though she herself gave birth to a child out of wedlock, and was cohabiting with her partner, with whom she separated at the end of last year.

With the rise of feminism, more than 40% of newborn babies in 2022 were from new-style families without marital ties. With constant breakthroughs with regard to the issue of gender equality rights, many same-sex families have emerged; but when Meloni took office, the district courts cancelled the registration of 33 females in lesbian relationships as mothers, because they were “non-gestational mothers”. 

Musk held his child as he stood on stage at a political festival organised by the Brothers of Italy party, calling on Italians to have more children. After the festival, Meloni received Musk — whom she calls a genius entrepreneur — at the Palazzo Chigi. Musk, who has 11 children, is the best advocate for having children.

However, while some of Musk's children were born through a surrogate mother, Meloni is against surrogate births, and her party is attempting to enact laws that define it as a “universal crime” — even if it were carried out overseas, such an offence could result in imprisonment from three months to two years, and a fine from 600,000 to 1 million euros (US$65,867 to US$1.1 million) in Italy.

Surrogacy comes with several ethical questions which need to be carefully considered, but Meloni said “children are not over-the-counter products that you can choose on the shelf as if you were in the supermarket”, seemingly putting a lid on any leeway for rational discussion. 

As technology progresses, society is also changing rapidly, and there is a need to think about policies from a broader perspective. Banking on a return to the traditional family unit and promoting the role of motherhood in a bid to encourage births is like getting blood from a stone.

This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “意大利的人口寒冬”.

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