Europe’s oldest country: Why is Italy aging?

The declining birth rate and the increased chances of survival of older people have considerably aged the Italian population, to the point that economists are worried about the country’s future.

By Euronews

The aging of the Italian population is beginning to take its toll on the famous Italian “dolce vita”. The growing number of pensioners does not match the number of newborns. The efforts of Giorgia Meloni’s right-wing government to boost the birth rate have so far failed to reverse the demographic trend.

According to the latest Eurostat data, Italy is the most aged country in the European Union: half of the population is now over 48 years old on average. Together with Portugal, Italy has the highest percentage of residents over the age of 65, equal to 24%, approximately one in four.

This increase reflects a Europe-wide trend, with the bloc experiencing a general increase in its median age (44.5 years). The number of older people now represents more than one-fifth of the bloc’s population.

“What is most significant, however, is the aging trend of the Italian population,” Cecilia Tomassini, professor of Demography and Social Statistics at the University of Molise, explains to ‘Euronews’. “The proportion of individuals aged 80 and over has risen to 7.7% of the population, a remarkable increase from the 3.3% recorded in 1991,” she adds.

“Essentially, while the population has increased by 3.4% since 1991, the segment aged 80 and over has more than doubled during the same period.” But Italy’s “nonni” – beloved characters both at home and abroad – are not the problem, Giovanni Lamura of Italy’s National Institute of Health and Science on Aging tells ‘Euronews’.

“That people live longer should be a goal on the political agenda of any country’s government,” he says. “The problem is that fertility rates in Italy are low, we have fewer and fewer children,” he continues.

How has Italy aged so much?

The reason for Italy’s aging population is simple: the number of deaths, due to its aging population, far exceeds the number of births.

In the last 40 years, the average number of children per family in Italy has been less than 1.5, Alessandro Rosina, professor of Demography and Social Statistics at the Università Cattolica di Milano, assures ‘Euronews’. “The most recent data are below 1.24 per woman,” he adds.

A rate of 2 births per woman is needed to maintain a stable population. This decline in the fertility rate began in the 1980s, according to Tomassini, albeit with occasional fluctuations.

“Migratory flows have only marginally slowed this aging process,” he notes. “Otherwise, their impact would have been considerably more pronounced.” Although there was a period during which this negative balance was offset by a higher positive migration rate, “this is no longer the case,” Tomassini said. “Consequently, the population decline in Italy is becoming more pronounced.”

The fact that older people in Italy are living longer is actually positive news, Lamura stresses. “People have been able to live longer thanks to beneficial policies, generous pensions and a free healthcare system that has allowed even those who could not afford it to receive care,” he says.

But there is another side to the coin. Lamura remarks that the country has not invested as much in younger generations as it has in previous generations. “Italy should be doing more to help young families financially, but it has a massive GDP debt [140.6% of its entire GDP in September 2023] that is under international scrutiny, so it can’t afford to go further into debt with some generous new pro-family policies,” he stresses.

“People in Italy plan and dream of having children and a family as much as other Europeans. What is missing are adequate policies that support the realization of these plans and dreams,” Rosina highlights.

“Italy has one of the highest average ages for parents to have their first child [in Europe], especially as young people struggle to join the workforce and find stable jobs, as well as facing difficulties in securing a home of their own.”

Those who have children then face the challenge of trying to reconcile family and work life in a country that lacks both financial support and adequate infrastructures for young parents and their children.

“In Italy, the birth of a child can represent a worsening of parents’ economic conditions, as well as a complication of their life from an organizational point of view, more so than in other countries,” Rosina laments. “The country’s limited policies aimed at supporting young families convey the negative message that having a family does not bring value to the community and is not worthy of support,” she continues.

What is the future for Italy?

For Tomassini, the aging of the Italian population and the decline in the birth rate are expected to continue in the future. That is “unless there are significant interventions, such as mortality crises or a new baby boom,” he says. “In the short term, migration can play as a significant variable that could influence population dynamics, although it can be politically slippery.”

Meloni’s government has made increasing the birth rate one of his government’s priorities, but has so far failed to achieve concrete results. It has halved the VAT on diapers and baby milk, but day care centers remain expensive and hardly affordable for many.

The biggest fear for the country is that its already weak economic growth will continue to slow, and that Italy will eventually be unable to cope with its pension and welfare system. “If fertility rates continue, Italy could have only 320,000 newborns in 25 years, with an increasingly unbalanced demographic structure,” warns Rosina.

“This is not a dystopian future, but simply the most likely scenario according to current dynamics. If Italy does not follow the example of Europe’s best policies in this field, the country’s development and social sustainability will be at risk in the coming decades,” she concludes.

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