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Changes Interviews

Change in an ageing Italy

The search for new balance and synergy between different cultures

Interview with Massimo Livi Bacci

Professor of Demography University of Florence

By April 2021April 8th, 2021No Comments
Photo by Lorenzo De Simone

The Italian population is ageing: the drop in births is accompanied by a greater life expectancy. The following article reflects on the demographic changes we are facing, which are viewed in the context of two converging crises- climate change and the pandemic- and the impact of demography and culture on the country’s propensity towards innovation and change.

What are the main drivers for demographic changes and what is their impact on western countries?

The deep changes impacting western societies for the last fifty years stem from two simultaneous phenomena. The first one is the strong decline in birth rates, thus the low tendency to have children. In western countries the fertility rate has now reached a much lower level than what demographers call “the replacement-level”- two children per woman- or the perfect numerical replacement between generations. Some populations even have an average fertility rate of 1, a level that, if maintained over time, leads to the halving of the population over a few decades. For example, in Italy that’s the case for Sardinia (where the fertility rate was 1.03 in 2019). Such a low fertility rate is the consequence of couples’ conscious choices, as they are now in full control of family planning options. The other phenomenon is the large and constant improvement of survival rates and the greater life expectancy, which is now, on average, well over 80 years, even though the coronavirus pandemic caused a small decrease in 2020. These two phenomena created the ideal conditions for the rapid process of ageing: there are fewer babies but more people who are surviving old age, so there are less and less young people and an increasing amount of elderly.

The introduction of a one-off child benefit payment is a positive and concrete first step for a form of social policymaking that aims to support fertility.

What are the necessary changes to adapt to an ever-changing context?

If we are talking about demographics, we clearly need to interrupt the negative spiral of the decline in birth rates. Over the span of a few decades this can result in a lower number of young people in their reproductive age, who then have low propensity to reproduce and tend to have less and less children. Overall, we need policies that ensure less burdensome conditions for births and for raising children. The introduction of a one-off child benefit payment, which will come into place in a few months, is a positive and concrete first step for a form of social policymaking that aims to support fertility. However, we were able to reach this measure with a thirty-year delay because political forces shamefully underfunded the social policymaking meant to support families and children, leaving this area very disorganised and unreliable. Generally, there are at least three policies that future governments should implement and strengthen without hesitation and regardless of their political orientation. The first objective is to have more women in the work market, thus higher household incomes for families. This would lead to less uncertainty towards the future and more serenity around family planning. Secondly, young people should be given more independence. Young people in Italy detain the world record for the age at which they leave their family, which consequently leads to financial autonomy and family planning. Thirdly: gender equality, which we are very far from achieving. Women are disproportionally burdened with the duties associated with raising children and that impacts the birth rate negatively.
The population increases also thanks to immigration and in Italy, despite the crisis caused by the pandemic, this is still having a positive effect in this sense. On average immigrants are of young age and tend to have more children than Italians. If Italy truly wants to respond to its demographic decline- and the associated economic and social ones – it should account for an immigration policy that is able to plan for relevant migratory flows that are useful for the economy and able to integrate well within society.

If Italy truly wants to respond to its demographic decline- and the associated economic and social ones – it should account for an immigration policy that is able to plan for relevant migratory flows that are useful for the economy and able to integrate well within society.

A year ago the ex director of The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger wrote, “The pandemic is the general proof of what awaits us with climate change”. What does the history of demography teach us?

Many, varying and interesting observations are being made about the arrival of the coronavirus, this “unwanted guest”; I think we’ll need to hear and patiently discuss all of them. One of them, that I think is quite general but rather relevant, states that the onset of the epidemic is the consequence of humans interfering with delicate natural balances. It is further evidence that the production and consumption activities of this growing mass of people, now close to 8 billions, is unsustainable. Moreover, that’s all happening in an increasingly mobile, interconnected and globalised world. Therefore the epidemic is a symptom of the unsustainability of development. There are definitively some elements of truth to this statement, but the emergence of new pathologies, like the current one, is not an inevitable consequence. Human interference with natural environments is as old as the history of humanity itself. The interaction between humans and animals and the zoonosis stemming from that are the source of most communicable diseases, ranging from the flu to the plague. In fact, maybe this interaction was even more intense in the past: for example, let’s think about our countryside, shepherds and their flock, families of farmers living in close contact with farmyard animals and cohabiting with animals inside barns, or hunters in swamps. It’s true that globalisation connects the most remote places on Earth and that it allows microbes and viruses to rapidly travel from one human group to the next. Native American populations had never encountered smallpox or measles until the incautious navigators put Eurasia and Africa in contact with the New World, completing what Le Roy Ladurie called “unification microbienne du monde (the unification of the world by disease)”. Actually, the rest of the world was already unified before Colombo came along. In just a few years from its onset, the bubonic plague originating from the Far East spread throughout Europe, Russia and northern African countries; this happened seven hundred years before the Chinese Silk Road (or the Belt and Road Initiative) were even heard of. The Spanish influenza, which seems to have begun in its mildest form in the heart of the United States during the spring of 1918, managed to spread throughout most of the globe by the end of the year, despite the lack of air traffic to shorten distances. Therefore we can assume that the conditions for the rapid spread of viruses have been there for quite a while, way before the transportation of goods and people reached its frenetic pace of the past decades.

Today the demographic decline of some world countries is accompanied by the overpopulation of other parts of the world. Are these two phenomena unsustainable?

I would say that they are unsustainable only if we were living in a motionless world where the current situation has become permanent. If that were the case European populations would significantly decrease while Sub-Saharan Africa would quadruplicate in the next century. However, the world is dynamic, contexts change and so do demographic patterns. Development inevitably comes with a significant decrease in birth rates, a better control of fertility and a slower demographic growth. China, that in the middle of the last century used to have exuberant demographics, will begin to numerically decline in a few years from now. Almost every country that we used to call “third world country”- later timorously changed to “developing country”- managed to significantly moderate its demographic growth. Furthermore, we should not exclude the possibility that careful social policymaking could counterbalance the declining fertility trend of rich countries. History shows that the regions of the world follow cyclical dynamics, but they do this slowly, gradually, and often out of sync time wise.

Is there a relationship between the population ageing and our country’s resistance to change and innovation?

This relationship is definitively present, although adequate policies could also make it less stringent. Cutting edge scientific discoveries, technological innovation and business activities are young people’s domain. Productivity decreases with ageing and the same goes for the propensity and the ability to innovate. It is a natural law. An aged society is one that advances with the handbrake on- it carries on but it does so more slowly. The brake can be partly “released” as old people reach a greater level of culture and education, and when they live in a stimulating environment where they actively participate to social life.

An aged society is a society that advances with the handbrake on- it carries on but it does so more slowly.

In the last twenty years the left-wing parties were relatively older than the right-wing ones; is this a form of contraposition?

The left-wing parties are often criticised, rightly or wrongly- I don’t know- for their rigidity and inability to respond promptly to the needs of young generations, for defending those who are “in” rather than supporting those who are “out” and for using ideological and outdated language. Basically, the left wing is not modern and it certainly isn’t post-modern either. I am not sure if that’s true but this is how I “interpret” things.

I think that the dialogue between old and young people is still helpful because the “cultures” are indeed different but discussion enables both of them to learn from each other. Obviously generations should share some values, such as freedom, solidarity, respect for others and civic consciousness…

The new minister Enrico Giovannini stated that, “the push for a sustainable and responsible change should come from below and involve all generations”. Any resistance to change and the push towards change both depend on people’s culture and not just their age. Should the right balance between generations be restored again in terms of culture?

I find Giovannini’s appeal a bit generic. I don’t understand what is meant by change “that should come from below”. What is below meant to be, especially in relation to the question about what would be “the right balance between generations in terms of culture”? If anything, I think that the dialogue between old and young people is still helpful because the “cultures” are indeed different but discussion enables both of them to learn from each other. Obviously generations should share some values, such as freedom, solidarity, respect for others and civic consciousness… but I would stop there.

Edited by Laura Tonon

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