Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Happy Fertility Day!

There is a huge detonation slowly transpiring in Italy, and it has nothing to do with terrorists.  But in some ways it is far more acute than any terrorist bomb.  Because it is not an explosion but a painfully slow implosion that threatens the economic future of the whole country.  Italians are simply not producing enough babies.

That’s right, in the country world famous for amore and litters of children around Mama’s feet, young Italians are just not getting with it enough to produce bambini.  And when they are, they’re using various methods to ensure that no bambini result.

The implosion has been slowly, quietly unfolding for almost fifty years now.  A little demographic background  Italy has a population of roughly 60.6 million people, about 1/5 that of the United States.  But Italy is a much smaller country; that population represents a density of 201 persons per square kilometer; compare that to the US which has on average about 33 persons per square kilometer.  

You would think that Italy is overrun, wouldn’t you?  And, in a sense, you’d be right.  It’s always a shock to our American sense of ‘personal space’ our first week or so here to adjust to  all the warm bodies jostling about.  Roads are jam-packed, there’s never a parking space where you want it, strangers move right into you comfort zone to conduct mundane business, the narrow streets are packed with cars and pedestrians… it’s enough to make you run screaming for some open space.  But it’s a bit deceptive.

In the twentieth century, Italy’s population basically doubled.  That was due primarily to two factors, better hygiene and health care on one hand, and the so-called ‘Economic Miracle’ on the other.  In effect, Italy went from a late feudal society to one of the most industrialized countries in Western Europe.  But the miracle was very localized.  Roughly 90% of industrial growth arose in the North, especially in the Po River valley.  Most of the rest occurred in the environs of Rome and a bit in the Naples area.  Thus today about half the population lives in one of these three areas.

When you consider the appalling toll that two world wars took on Italy’s youth and the staggering amount of emigration she has experienced, her fertility rates were especially impressive.  Up until about 1970, Italians were breeding like rabbits.  But then the tide changed, and in the last 20 years the fertility rate has fallen to alarming levels.  Today Italy’s fertility rate, that is, the number of live births per adult female, has fallen to 1.38 kids per mother.  Compare that with the U.S., where the rate is 1.82 per mother.  The ‘replacement rate’, the rate which produces a stable population, is 2.1 children per mother, the extra tenth, sadly, needed to account for infant and child mortality.

So what’s the big deal?  If it’s so crowded here, surely they can do with a few less warm bodies.  The problem is that Italy, as has the U.S., has made a social contract to support its aged population in their last years, and Italy has a huge aged population.  A recent study reveals that Italy has more oldsters—6.5% of the population—over 80 than any other European country, and those who make it to 80 can expect to live on average another 10 years.  Centenarians are everywhere here.  Roughly one out of five Italians is over 65 and most rely on the Italian equivalent of Social Security for subsistence and health care.  All us oldsters in the U.S. need the young’uns to keep working to fund the huge deficit created when our brilliant legislators ‘balanced’ the budget by ‘borrowing’, i.e., stealing, from the Social Security Trust Fund.  But if you think our pols are larcenous rogues, well…you’re right, but their Italian counterparts could teach them a thing or two about grand larceny.  Now, if you’re astute, you may be thinking about that figure of 1.8 relative to the replacement rate and becoming a bit concerned for your own welfare.  But the U.S. fertility rate is offset by a healthy dose of immigration.  We can argue about how they should come and maybe where they should come from, but, friends, we need those young people and the vigor they inject into our economy.  And, as an aside, if you could experience the kids of first and second generation immigrants the way I have in a highly multicultural high school, you’d be thanking God they were here and praying for more brown and black and yellow ones, as well as the white ones.  Those kids have been the light of my life for the last 10 years.

Italy has the fifth-highest life expectancy in the world and a truly remarkable number of centenarians.  The climate is salubrious, the diet is good, though eroding, health care is universal and free…. and young people are just not having babies.  Look, I don’t have a clue what this means and I certainly don’t mean it as a slam on the Roman Catholic Church, but here’s a bald fact:  Italy has a population that’s 87.8 Roman Catholic and yet she has the highest rates of birth control and abortion of any European country.  And Italy desperately needs young people working to sustain the social benefits of a rapidly aging population.

So dire has the problem become that the government recently tried to initiate National Fertility Day, to be celebrated  September 22.  The campaign featured TV spots and magazine ads, one of which featured a happy young woman clutching her swelling belly with one hand and holding an egg timer in her other hand as the sands quickly run out and exclaiming, “Beauty has no age, but Fertility does!”  Another featured a rotting banana peel and the caption for men, “Male fertility is much more fragile than you think!”  Another shows a handsome young swain smoking a cigarette and the caption, “Don’t let your sperm go up in smoke!”  You know, the subtle approach.  The kicker was one featuring a stork on the edge of an empty nest and the admonition to surfers, “Get a move on!  Don’t wait for the stork!”

Well, young Italians were not amused, and the images quickly went viral, as did the outrage they caused.  Most of the clever ripostes focused on such trivial matters as terrible job prospects among youth—unemployment has shrunk from a high of 47% to a mere 35% among those under 25— as well as terrible job protections for young women on maternity leave.  Young professional women are often asked to sign—completely illegally—an undated letter of resignation, so that if they become pregnant, their employers can claim they have ‘resigned’ and will not be responsible for maternity benefits or obligated to rehire them.   And there are poor guaranteed family leave provisions to boot.

Granted, not as abysmal as ours.  The U.S. has no government-mandated family leave provisions, the only Western economy that does not.  And this despite a mountain of evidence that paid leave for parents, especially moms, the first three months of a baby’s life pays huge financial dividends in lowered medical bills and higher productivity when the parents return to work.

So how is it we still have a higher birth rate?  The secret seems to be that most young people in the U.S., especially those college educated, have a reasonable shot at a decent job and financial independence.  Young Italians do not.  To personalize that a bit, I have a wonderful young Italian friend who recently graduated from college.  This young man is truly outstanding—intelligent, articulate, hard-working.  He’s even published several scholarly articles, as an undergraduate!  I recently asked Fernando if he had found a job and Fernando revealed ruefully that he was unemployed and living at home with his parents.  “An Italian college diploma is nothing more than a piece of paper!”  That is sadly typical.

So intense was the backlash from the Fertility Day campaign that Health Minister Beatrice Lorenzin has pulled the spots and protested that no offense was intended.  The most effective viral Instagram in protest was no doubt one which shows a young female hand holding a positive pregnancy strip.  But the positive result is indicated, not by color but by the message, “Time to go abroad and find yourself a job!”

I won't translate this one since it's pretty crude.

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