In the eyes of the world, Italian culture could be summed up in the formula f3: family + fashion + football = heart. Sentimental, no doubt, but with a kernel of truth. While football and fashion are holding their own, however, the family is not, at least numerically. With very low birthrates and an ageing population there are now fewer births than deaths. As in other parts of Europe — Germany, Austria, Belgium and the Czech Republic — in Italy the one- or two-child family has become the norm. The country’s birthrate rose slightly last year to 1.25 children per woman, but it is still one of the lowest in Europe, far below population replacement level. Yet this is not necessarily because Italians do not want to have more children — the latest research shows they do. What is holding them back?
Marta Brancatisano, a mother of seven who teaches anthropology in Rome, sees the trend developing in two stages: “In the 1970s, women who desired to have more than two children found themselves sailing against the prevailing ideology — the sexual revolution. Having more children meant you were irresponsible and naive. Today, I believe the problem is not so much ideological as economic and social. Women are immersed in the labour market and it is difficult to combine family and work. There is no labour flexibility, at least not in Italy.”
It comes down to a personal choice, Dr Brancatisano believes. “A woman’s fertility and the energy it takes to have children are very specific things. I know some Italians (not many) who, after finishing college, have devoted themselves to raising a family. Once the third child is old enough, they take up their profession again.” This Italian mamma feels proud of her large family, which develops her skills in problem-solving, motivation and management, and therefore increases her value in the workplace.
Values, women and work
Financial constraints lead other couples to delay starting a family, making it more likely that there will be “only one”. The size of their homes is also a hurdle. Many Italian families live in relatively small urban apartments where space is tight for a family of three, and more so with four. Other reasons can be found in the lack of help from a partner, work and the desire for individual freedom. Frequently, Italians don’t want to have a second child because they prefer to have a nice car or brand labelled clothes and shoes. This problem is complex but is related — as in the West generally — to their ideals of happiness, personal commitment and generosity.
Elsewhere such aspirations have been realised through women combining motherhood with careers and paid work. But in Italy, as in Spain and other southern European countries, there are few opportunities for married women to earn a second income, and this forces women to choose between paid work and motherhood. Countries with high female labour participation rates, such as France and Britain, tend to have higher fertility than countries such as Italy, where fewer mothers work outside the home and there is less support for those who do. This means that fewer women even look for jobs but it also means lower birthrates because women put off childbearing.
Married women are not the only ones who find the job market difficult. Young Italians find themselves jumping from one badly paid job to another, and so they are allowed to live at home until they reach some stability. In Italy, more than 80 per cent of men aged 18 to 30 still live with their parents. The veneration of family and the desire of young people to live close to their parents runs deep in Italian culture, but it can also have its downside. As in many countries, the security of home can encourage young people to focus too much on satisfying immediate ambitions rather than taking on the burden of children. In many cases this has caused adolescence to be prolonged well into the 30s. In the 1980s European women had their first child at 25, today this happens on average at 28-and-a-half. The average Italian man is 33 when his first child is born, making Italian men the oldest first-time fathers in Europe.
Although Italy lags behind in family policy, it has now begun to lift its game. Since 2003 the government has given families a baby bonus for the second child. The bonus varies according to the province. In the capital, under the slogan “Rome cradles you”, in addition to 1000 euros the mother receives a birth kit containing, among other products, a baby card (for medical care), a photo album, and a CD with traditional Italian music.
But this is more of a token gesture than a real answer to low fertility, according to Paola Maria Zerman, a state lawyer who worked for the Family Commission for three years during Silvio Berlusconi’s administration. “Even though the baby-bonus is helpful it’s not a deep solution since it is only a subsidy. A much stronger solution would be that the larger families pay less taxes.”
Countries such as France, Sweden and Norway have dealt with the same problem by increasing the rewards for mothers: more children, more benefits. By contrast, Italy’s policies seem a little half-baked. “Italian policies have a serious ideological problem,” says Dr Zerman. “They equate the promotion of larger families (three-to-four children) with ‘Catholic policies’ and so avoid looking at this solution. In other countries where this ideology doesn’t exist they have been able to effectively work towards families with more children.
“In Italy, until it is understood that the family should be the foundation for any society, no real solutions can be found. Immigration will continue to be used as a solution to raise the birthrate,” Dr Zerman adds. Traditionally, Italy has been a country of emigrants. In the last 20 years, however, it has reversed to become a country of immigration. Currently Italy has 58 million inhabitants. In the year 2002, 855,535 visas were offered to immigrants; in 2005, the number increased to 1,076,680.
A popular trend
In spite of such obstacles, we are seeing in Italy a small but significant trend towards having more babies. Not everything, after all, depends on the central government.
Last July, the TeleGiornale (television newscast) reported with much hype the news that, in one small town, a baby was born for the first time in 36 years. The witnesses of this great event were the neighbours of the area, mostly elders, who with lively banners and shouts of Auguri! awaited the arrival of the little Italian.
Even popular culture is starting to promote the birthrate. Luca Bernabei, a director of Lux Vide Television, recently told a young audience about one of his upcoming projects: a TV series which takes place in a maternity clinic. The main theme would be life stories reflecting the beauty of motherhood.
And earlier this year Nissan ran a car advertising campaign under the slogan, “There is no greater adventure than having children.” Newspapers, radio stations and billboards have made this campaign more than a product promo; it stands for a new attitude to children and to the future.
During Romano Prodi’s political campaign the new Prime Minister offered to give families 2,500 euros per year for each child until it turned three. The parent group, MOIGE, known all over Italy for its monitoring of television content, demands that the new government keep its promises. President of the association Maria Rita Munizzi says: “Italy is one of the oldest countries in Europe. We need to give back to couples the confidence and the means of bringing children into the world. Now, thousands of families are anxiously waiting for Mr. Prodi to fulfil the offer.”
There is no greater adventure than having children. Nissan’s slogan speaks directly to the anxieties of a society with few children. Sooner or later the leaders will have to realize that the “family” element in the f3 Italian formula is the key for the nation’s growth.
Adela Lo Celso and Alegria Duran-Ballen are freelance journalists working in Rome.