When Daniela Vicino started work as a teacher in Sicily three decades ago, she had up to 30 children in her classes. With the birthrate tumbling, that number has almost halved.
There are now “18-20 at best, and even 15-16 in some cases,” she told reporters in the southeastern town of Caltagirone. “It is a very painful thing.”
Italy has long suffered one of the lowest birthrates in Europe, but the situation has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic — saddling the country with problems that go well beyond empty cribs.
Last year, the Italian population shrank by almost 400,000 — roughly the size of the city of Florence — to 59.3 million as deaths peaked, births bottomed out and immigration slowed down.
At a conference on the decline of the birthrate on Friday also attended by Pope Francis, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi said that the average age of Italians was 47, “the highest in Europe.”
“An Italy without children is an Italy that has no place for the future, it is an Italy which slowly ceases to exist,” he said.
Experts have said that fewer children today mean fewer tax-paying workers tomorrow, making any country less productive and less capable of providing for its aging population.
This has long been a concern for Western societies, but the threat looms larger in Italy, already the most sluggish economy within the G7 club of industrialized nations.
Draghi has promised more nurseries, support for working women and mortgage help for young couples as part of Italy’s 221 billion euro (US$268 billion), EU-funded pandemic recovery plan.
Italy’s social security system is skewed toward the elderly, with health and pensions taking a lion’s share of the budget.
The hilltop town of Caltagirone is famous for its ceramics and UNESCO-protected baroque architecture.
However, like much of southern Italy, it is also economically depressed and is a flashpoint of the demographic crisis.
The number of babies born there each year halved between 1999 and 2019, dropping from 532 to just 265, according to national statistics agency Istat, putting it in the top 10 of Italian towns in terms of declining birthrate.
“The figures do not surprise me,” Caltagirone Mayor Gino Ioppolo told reporters — while attributing at least part of the trend to outside factors.
He noted the closing in 2019 of a large migrant camp in nearby Mineo, whose residents used the birth unit of Caltagirone’s hospital.
Still, the demographic decline is apparent at Vicino’s elementary school, where five classes of fifth graders are set to finish next month, and would be replaced in September by only two classes.
At another local school, principal and ex-Caltagirone mayor Franco Pignataro said pupil numbers had plummeted by about one-third in the past 15 to 20 years, to about 1,200.
“In the last few years, the situation has really got worse,” he said, adding that young people were leaving Caltagirone in droves, because “there are no job opportunities.”
Local resident Luca Giarmana, 27, admitted to being part of a minority.
Out of his high-school class — almost 30 people — 90 percent have left town and only one has a child, he said.
“It’s linked to a general decline in the economy over the last 20 years, to difficulty in finding work, difficulty in having a stable situation — which are all prerequisites for deciding to start a family,” he said.
In 2012, Italy saw births fall to the lowest level since it became a nation-state in 1861, to about 534,000. Since then, new record lows have been established every year.
Last year, as COVID-19 swept the country, the figure fell to 404,000.
For this year, Istat expects a further drop to 384,000 to 393,000 — largely due to an expected post-pandemic baby bust across the world.
In December last year and January — nine months after COVID-19 took hold in Italy — new births fell, year-on-year, by about 10 and 14 percent respectively.
As part of its strategy to reverse the demographic decline, the government is working on a so-called Family Act due to introduce more generous child benefits, longer parental leave for fathers and other incentives.
The plan has been welcomed by experts, even if it might take years to have an impact.
One said that according to surveys, Italian couples say on average that they would like to have two children — even if the actual fertility rate fell to 1.24 births per woman last year.
“There is a gap between the desired number of children, and the actual number people have,” said Leonardo Becchetti, a political economist at Rome’s Tor Vergata university.
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