Intergenerational issues in Italy: a family matter?

Martin Solly, professor at the Department of Culture, Politics and Society at the University of Turin, looks at the implications of Italy’s ageing and shrinking population, and the perceptions and prospects of the young.

The notion of intergenerational divergence in Italy seems to contrast strongly with the central unifying position of the family in Italian society. This post looks at two key aspects underlying intergenerational issues in Italy today.

First, what are the reasons driving the country’s very low birthrate, which seems to be at striking odds with Italy’s traditional reputation as a Catholic country based around large families?

Second, is the concept of the traditional Italian family with several generations living together now a myth?

Focusing on these two aspects provides the opportunity to bring a demographic and familial lens to bear on Italy’s intergenerational situation and thus to try to make some sense of its paradoxical nature.

Low birthrate

Accurate demographic and socioeconomic data on the Italian situation is regularly made available by Istat, the country’s national statistical office, which also provides comment on topical issues and changing trends.

Thus, for example, the most recent national report on “birth and fertility of the resident population”, with detailed data on 2017 and made public on 28 November 2018, was widely discussed and debated in the Italian media. (An English version of the press release is available.)

The Istat data reveal that Italy has one of the lowest birthrates in the European Union. In 2017 the average number of children per woman was 1.32, with a total of 458,151 births registered. This was the lowest number of births since the unification of Italy in 1861, including the two world wars, and the number has been continuously in decline since 2013.

Twice as many babies were born in Italy in 1965 (when the number of children per woman was 2.7) than in 2017.

The age at which mothers have children has, on the contrary, been rising and the average age that mothers have their first child is now over 31, while the number of women having children over the age of 40 has doubled since the early 2000s.

With childbirth increasingly taking place at an older age when infertility is more prevalent among both women and men, some families remain childless, despite the advances in medicine.

At the same time, since there are fewer women of childbearing age, Italy’s population is ageing.

Seeking explanations

The reasons why couples are marrying at an older age than in the past and postponing childbirth are complex: certainly the socioeconomic situation is important, yet young people’s perceptions of that situation and the future outlook might be even more so.

Youth unemployment is high in Italy and it is difficult for many young Italians to find any jobs, let alone steady, reasonably paid ones; so having children who might then become an economic burden can seem a step too long for many couples to take.

Such perceptions would seem to significantly affect lifestyle choices, such as having a family in a post-industrial nation. Indeed, the young in Italy will often justify their choice to have their children later (and to have fewer children) by citing socioeconomic difficulties: the lack of a steady job, the fact that working women run the risk of losing their jobs when they become pregnant/have a child, the difficulty of finding (and affording) suitable accommodation and childcare.

There are few State benefits for couples with small children in Italy. Even though looking after la famiglia looms large in most electoral programmes, the promises are often empty or remain unimplemented.

While State assistance can be excellent in Italy, its provision is patchy and varied. Public sector childcare, for example, may be unavailable or oversubscribed in some Italian cities and can be as expensive as private childcare, which may in any case be the preferred option for some parents because of the more flexible timetabling.

Change and tradition

Turning to the second intergenerational aspect focused on in this post, some major social changes have taken place in Italy over the last few decades, especially as regards the status of women.

After all, Italy was the country which shocked the Catholic world in the 1970s with its referenda in favour of divorce (1974) and abortion (1978), alongside its silent rejection of the Vatican’s tenets on family planning. There has definitely been a considerable increase in female employment in Italy.

Yet, the situation of women is still far from perfect. The rates of femicide and violence against women remain unacceptably high.

Women are often paid less than their male counterparts for doing the same work. The steady job can also be a mirage for many female Italians, and having children can mean saying goodbye to their incipient career.

Nonetheless, the current data show that the traditional family is in many ways still dominant in Italy. Large numbers of young people continue to live at home with their parents well into their 30s, and births outside marriage continue to be lower in Italy than in France, the United Kingdom and Germany.

Overall, salaries are low in Italy and very often families only get by with the support of their senior members – support that can be directly financial, or in the provision of accommodation or babysitting.

In half of Italian families, grandparents regularly help with the childcare, and in one out of five families they care for their grandchildren on a more or less daily basis.

The caring can also become reciprocal as the grandparents might be facing the double-edged advantages of an improved healthcare situation. Italians are increasingly long-lived, which could also mean that young Italians might be caring for their elderly relatives, since living longer implies a greater need for carers at home.

In any case, pragmatic and practical, Italian family members will still try and live near one another if and when they move out from the family home, although this often might not be possible in the current socioeconomic situation – and who knows what the future holds?

Perceptions and reality

Current perceptions among the young in Italy are difficult to quantify, but generally speaking they would seem to hold quite a pessimistic view of the present and future alongside an over-rosy one of the past.

Young people will often contrast their situation with that faced by their parents (who, the story goes, could easily find steady, well-paid jobs). While this view does not perfectly match the reality of the past, it nevertheless needs to be borne in mind by those studying contemporary Italian attitudes.

Some commentators even suggest that young Italians have been “overprotected” by their parents, that they are “self-centred” and “self-indulgent”, leading to a fear of not being able to cope, alongside a reluctance to “grow up” and face the responsibility of raising a family. Others would say that it takes courage to bring children into a world where the future is uncertain and challenging.

As regards the future, the statistics suggest that the knock-on effect of the declining birthrate could well be dramatic. In the Eurostat projections, by 2050 the largest age cohort in Italy will be those aged 75-79 (currently 45-49 is the most numerous age group). There will likewise be a dramatic reduction in the size of the available workforce.

The total number of the Italian population has been declining since 2015, despite immigration, and Eurostat reckons that by 2060-65 the Italian population will have fallen from 60 to 50 million inhabitants, and the number could well be lower if recent immigration patterns are not sustained.

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