ROME – Last week, Italy got some dire news: A mere 509,000 babies were born in 2014, which was 5,000 fewer than in 2013. It marked the fewest births in the country’s century-and-a-half history as a unified nation.
The number of babies born to both natives and foreigners dropped as immigration, which used to support population growth, tumbled.
Thanks to the benefit of the Mediterranean diet, the mortality rate also declined, stretching life expectancy for Italian men to 80.2 years and to 84.9 years for women.
After the figures were released, Health Minister Beatrice Lorenzin lamented the numbers: “A country without births is a country that is dead.”
“We are very close to the threshold of nonrenewal where the people dying are not replaced by newborns,” she said.
Lorenzin said the situation “has enormous implications for every sector: the economy, society, health, pensions. … We need a wake-up call and a real change of culture to turn the trend around.”
The trend means more trouble for an economy that’s been in a funk for as long as anyone can remember.
Without children to grow up and pay for the health care and pensions of their aging parents and grandparents, the debt-addled government is stuck with a mounting bill. And collecting enough revenue to meet these obligations is especially tricky in already-flailing economies.
A low fertility rate — Italy’s was 1.39 children per woman last year, on par with Japan’s and below the U.S.’s 1.9 — eventually shrinks the workforce, consisting of people who make things and buy things to make the economy grow. And that drives down inflation, research has shown.
Japan is the poster child for that phenomenon. The threat of tumbling prices prompted the European Central Bank to unveil historic measures last month in the form of a $1.25 trillion cash infusion.
Italy isn’t alone in grappling with this. Some 18 percent of the French are older than 65, up from 13.8 percent in 1990, estimates compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau show.
Greece’s ratio is 20.2 percent. Italy’s 21 percent of seniors is surpassed by only Germany (21.1 percent) and Japan (25.8 percent).
No wonder Pope Francis is now telling people to stop being so “selfish” and procreate. It was a change of tune from his message only weeks ago, when he chided Catholics for breeding like rabbits.