Once upon a time, on my first-ever descent to Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci International Airport, I glimpsed the pines of Rome, which brought to mind Ottorino Respighi’s 1924 tone poem by that name. In that symphonic piece, Respighi depicts Rome’s pines in four different parts of the city at four different times of the day. In so doing he manages to evoke all the beauty and the grandeur of the Eternal City. Since that time, my enthusiasm for the Mediterranean’s beautiful country—il bel paese—has never waned.
Italy is blessed with a salubrious climate, a matchless cultural heritage and a fabulous landscape. Italian heritage imbues the architecture, music, wine, cuisine and lifestyle. The Italian way of life, la dolce vita—though too laid-back for many Brits and Americans—suits me fine.
The efficiency so craved by neighbors to the north is missing. Try driving in Rome and you’ll find that anarchy prevails – but folks happily muddle through. The country is a favorite target of people smugglers. But there are opera fans galore. Composers are venerated, ancient Romans celebrated, churches cherished, and life lived. These are the people who, during the pandemic lockdown, sang and played music together from their balconies, channeling creativity to lift the public mood. Only in Italy.
Hooray for Italians! The show must go on!
Yet Italy has its problems. The economy is a basket case, firmly in the grip of the unforgiving talons of globalism. Debt is over 135% of GDP. (What can you expect when the head of state is a central banker?) Unemployment is 10%, and youth unemployment is close to 30%. Taxes are among the highest of the 38-member Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries: income taxes and the social security scheme claim about 48% of wages. There is, consequently, a thriving “parallel economy,” or black market.
Adjusted for inflation, wages of Italian workers are the same as 20 years ago. The cost of living, of course, is not. Well over 400,000 jobs were lost to lockdowns. A fair number of them will not come back.
And, most alarmingly, since the mid-2000s, 2.4 million Italians have left the country for opportunities elsewhere.
Like other Europeans, Italians are a vanishing breed. They just aren’t having enough children to replace themselves. The population has been declining every year since 2015. In 2019, there were 212,000 more deaths than births. Italy has one of the world’s lowest fertility rates at 1.34. In December 2020, following the February lockdown, births were down 21.6% from December 2019. Slightly more than 400,000 people were born in Italy in 2020, the lowest annual count since 1861, the year of Italian unification.
Statistics compiled by Macrotrends indicate that Italian fertility, already down from 2.5 in the late 1960s, was at 2.15 in 1975 and descended to 1.26 by 2000, a 41% decline in just 25 years. Today’s Italian fertility rate of 1.34 is 36% below the 2.1 replacement level.
Both the Italian government and Eurostat, the EU’s keeper of statistics, project Italy’s population in 2080 to be between 53 and 60 million. The Lancet’s landmark 2017 fertility study projected the population of Italy, currently over 60 million, to halve by century’s end, shrinking to between 28 and 30 million. The Lancet further projected Italy’s 2100 fertility rate to be between 1.17 and 1.23.
The lack of babies means Italy is ageing. The country had a higher Covid-19 mortality rate than most places because 28% of folks are over 70, and 7.2% are over 80. While Covid-19 mortality figures have been fudged from the get-go, where otherwise very ill people who died with Covid were listed as dying from Covid, there is no disputing that Italy is ageing fast. In 2019 pensions were 17% of the economy.
The loss of faith, along with the growth of materialism, consumerism and all-or-nothing careerism, has taken a grim toll. Barring a revolutionary change in the way people think about family life, reproduction and children, fertility will not increase. Economic and social incentives could help, but without a fundamental shift in thinking – a spiritual rebirth – fertility will not increase enough to make a difference.
Every year the number of indigenous Italians shrinks by a quarter million. Like the rest of the West, Italy relies on mass immigration to maintain the workforce. A plurality of immigrants to Italy are from Romania, but many of them move on to more prosperous EU countries. As all of Europe is in demographic decline, the flow of European immigrants is drying up.
Since 2014, European navies and NGOs have brought 600,000 migrants from Libya to Italy, with the full cooperation of the Italian government.
According to Eurostat, in 60 years, 50% of the people living in Italy will be of African or Asian descent. Intentional or not, a repopulation is under way, entirely changing the country’s ethnic, racial and religious composition.
Will these new arrivals and their descendants absorb Italian culture and assimilate into the Italian nation? History teaches that they will change the country’s character. How so? Haven’t a clue.
But I fervently hope that the folks in Italy 60 years from now will love opera, venerate composers, celebrate ancient Rome, cherish the churches, and not skip a beat with that delicious and delectable Italian cooking.