The demographic collapse of Italy

(To Andrea Gaspardo)

Throughout the year 2020 and also in this 2021, the front pages of both print and online newspapers have almost always dedicated extensive coverage to news relating to the progress of the Covid-19 pandemic. Although this attention is more than justified, the author of this analysis believes that it is also necessary to start from the impressive data of the Covid-19 pandemic to make a comprehensive analysis of the demographic situation in which our country finds itself because, without hyperbole or exaggerations, Italy has now come to a turning point and the time has come, both for the elites and for the whole Italian people, to open a serious and frank debate on the real future of our country because talking about demography, especially now in 2021, it means just that: talking about our future and the destiny we want to choose for our national community.

Before proceeding along this path it is necessary to open a necessary parenthesis. For many, demography is little more than a colorless parade of numbers necessary from a statistical point of view but unable to interpret the complexity of society and, due to the slowness with which demographic phenomena evolve, not too relevant for political or economic purposes. , not to say electoral. For others, demographic events indicate the path that humanity is following, symptoms of unsustainable growth or inexorable decline. Both constitute hasty visions that capture only the superficial aspects of demographic phenomena, isolated from their context. The demographic trend must in fact be interpreted on three different but connected floors.

The first and most obvious is that "Macro". The set of individuals influences production and consumption, the allocation of resources, the relationship with the territory and the environmental impact.

The second floor is that "Micro": demographic phenomena (births, deaths, marriages, divorces, migrations, etc.) are also the result of individual choices and behaviors, and as such they are a symptom of propensities, choices and life situations that have long-term consequences .

The third floor, concerns the "quality" population: demographic phenomena are in fact fundamental components of what is called "human capital" in economics. For example: low mortality is synonymous with better health, while the ability to unite and reproduce, to aggregate and move, are consequences of both conditioning and free individual choices.

On closer inspection, the importance of demography in the economic field was effectively described by the English economist John Maynard Keynes in a 1937 speech to the Eugenics Society: “A growing population has an important influence on the demand for capital. Not only does the demand for capital increase, net of technical progress and improved living conditions, in rough proportion to the population. But as entrepreneurs' expectations are based more on the current situation than on the future, an era of growing population tends to promote optimism, given that demand will tend to exceed expectations, rather than disappoint them. But in an era of declining populations, the opposite occurs. Demand tends to disappoint expectations and an oversupply situation is difficult to correct, so an atmosphere of pessimism can be determined. The first effect of changing from a growing population to a declining one can be disastrous ".

Reading these notes we understand how the decline of the population would have an effect comparable to that of deflation: a postponement of purchases by consumers, a consequent drop in investments by businesses, a drop in demand, a halt or a reversal. of growth sign.

Having closed this parenthesis, it is now necessary to ask ourselves what the “state of health” of the Italian population is, what kind of historical trajectory has brought us to today's situation and what could be the future.

Traditionally, Italy has always been characterized, compared to other Western European countries, by a markedly familist social organization, by a delay in economic development and education, by a backward social condition of the female element, by high fertility rates and massive migratory phenomena out of the peninsula.

Going through the data provided by "Our World in Data" of the United Nations and by the "Gapminder Foundation" of Stockholm, throughout the nineteenth century the total fertility rate (TFR) of Italian women fluctuated between a maximum of 5,47 and a minimum of 4,56 children per woman depending on the decades. These data should not be surprising if we think that the society of both the pre-unification Italian states and the newly formed Kingdom of Italy was rural and largely illiterate. However, the progressive industrial development, the improvement of hygienic conditions and the subsequent schooling have slowly but surely changed the tables since the last decades of the XNUMXth century and in the first half of the XNUMXth century.

The Italian population received a dramatic shock during the First World War and the simultaneous spread of the Spanish Flu, when for the first time in centuries there was a decline in the total population, despite the presence of total fertility rates ranging between 3,80, 3,24 and 1915 children per woman in the five-year period 1919-1916. In fact, if the population continued to increase until 36.481.000 reaching 1919 individuals, the catastrophic losses suffered by the Royal Army during the battles of the Isonzo, Caporetto and in the Piave area, the contextual famine that struck the populations and the arrival of the Spanish Influence led to a decline in the population which, in 35.717.000, now counted 764.000 inhabitants, with a difference of -1916 souls compared to 1920. Fortunately, contrary to what happened in other European countries such as France and Germany, the shock was short-lived and, already in XNUMX, the Italian population began to grow steadily again.

The advent of Fascism had a positive effect on the demographic dynamics of the peninsula since the Mussolini regime understood the geopolitical value that a large population would have for the fate of the Italy that the fascist dictatorship wanted to build. The expansive demographic policies approved by Mussolini were so effective that, not only on the eve of Italy's entry into the Second World War, in 1940, the Kingdom had a population of 44.467.000 inhabitants, but unlike what had happened with the First World War, the positive expansionist dynamic continued even in the years of the Second World War, despite the grief and destruction suffered by the peninsula during the enormous conflict.

The thirty years between 1945 and 1975 can be considered the "golden years" of the Italian demography given that the improvement of economic conditions, the lengthening of life expectancy and the maintenance of fertility rates that are still relatively high in the whole period ensured a continuous growth of the national population reservoir. Not only that, the years of the so-called "Economic Miracle" presented for the first time in the history of the boot a situation in which Italians were no longer forced to emigrate in search of fortune abroad due to lack of work and resources at home. Now the so-called “Italia Felix”, despite the perpetuation of the North-South dualism, could guarantee all Italians a potential job and, shortly thereafter, governments could even afford to experiment particularly generous social and welfare policies.

However, as happens in every historical era, even that of the "golden years" of Italy Felix was destined to end. A direct consequence of economic development and the raising of the level of education was in fact the lowering of birth rates, first slowly, then gradually more rapidly up to the year 1976, the last year in which, with a of total fertility of 2,11 children per woman, Italy presented "demographic accounts in order".

From then until today the total fertility rate has never reached the optimal level and has done nothing but fall inexorably net of ephemeral rebounds. However, despite the declining total fertility rate, from 1976 onwards, the total Italian population did not stop increasing for the next 39 years. This apparently counterintuitive trend is explained very simply by the fact that, as already mentioned, the decades prior to 1976 were very florid from the demographic point of view so that even if the number of children per woman was now lower, a large number of people who, year after year, entered the reproductive range and therefore the total number of births was still considerable (this process is known as "demographic moment"). It should not be forgotten that the economic and social progress in the years of the "postwar" led to a considerable lengthening of life expectancy and eliminated infant mortality, with a consequent benefit for the general demography of the country. Lastly, the end of the "Cold War" and "Globalization" have made the Italian peninsula a land of attraction for masses of immigrants from other areas of the European continent for the first time since the era of the "Barbarian Invasions". rest of the world.

The massive influx of immigrants (which today amount to about 8% of the Italian population) net of internal social and political tensions has actually brought benefits both in the economic and demographic spheres, however it has proved insufficient to revive the fortunes of Italy in the long run. Despite the gain of small decimal points on the total fertility rate, from 1993 until today (and with the only exception being the year 2004) the balance between births and deaths has remained hopelessly negative, originally by a few thousand units, but with an ever wider fork until reaching the "fantastic" figure of -214.262 in 2019.

Despite the negative natural balance, the positive migratory balance allowed for more than 20 years to "hide the dust under the carpet" until 2015 when the Italian population finally reached its historic peak of 60.795.612 units. Since then, unfortunately, all the knots have come to a head and the situation has continued to worsen alarmingly. The demographic bomb has hit Italy on a plurality of fronts so as to trigger, de facto, 4 different crises, all of which are not easy to resolve:

  • the total fertility rate (Total Fertility Rate, TFR) continued to decline to reach the minimum of 1,27 children per woman in 2019;
  • the drop in severance indemnity led to a decrease in the absolute number of births to the level of 420.170 in 2019 (the lowest value since the unification of Italy);
  • the aging of the population and the parallel relative worsening of economic and living conditions have caused an increase in mortality with a consequent widening (in a negative sense) of the natural balance between births and deaths (-214.262 in 2019);
  • the worsening of the economic and social crisis has given new impetus to emigration, both by "indigenous" Italians and by "new Italians recently settled" so much so that, if in 2015 the Italian population had reached a peak of 60.795.612 , at the beginning of 2020 it had reduced to 59.641.488 souls, with a total loss of over 1.154.000 people in 5 years (equivalent to the loss of the population of Trentino-Alto Adige).

Hence our country has irremediably slipped into the "demographic trap" admirably described by John Maynard Keynes in his 1937 address to the Eugenics Society. Analyzing the structure of the Italian population on the eve of the outbreak of the pandemic, it is then noted that 13% of the population was made up of young people under the age of 14 but the percentage of "over 65" was 23,2% with a marked tendency to growth.

It goes without saying that an aging society is much less inclined to “bet on the future” preferring to focus on “managing the existing”, especially if the required reforms touched the nerves of the pension reform. However, the indefinite maintenance of a pension system that no longer reflects the demographic structure of the country inevitably leads to unloading all the pressure on the population groups made up of young people, who in fact unable to modify the existing structures due to their own small numbers, react with the only tool at their disposal: "voting with their feet" (ie emigrating).

At this point it is necessary to ask ourselves, what impact the Covid-19 pandemic has had on the already delicate Italian demographic situation?

According to data recently published by ISTAT, a total of 2020 Italians died in 746.146. In the five-year period 2015-2019, the total number of deaths was 3.179.458, with an approximate average of about 635.892 individuals per year. This implies that in 2020 there were about 110.254 deaths more than the average of the previous five years (equivalent to the loss of the population of the Aosta Valley).

Given that, as of December 31, 2020, Italy had officially registered 74.159 deaths attributed to Covid-19, we find ourselves with a further 36.000 deaths (but in reality the "chasm" is even wider given that, for obvious reasons, 2020 has recorded a significant decrease in the number of deaths caused by accidents in the workplace and road accidents) which in large part can be attributed to the vertical collapse of the national health system, once considered the second best in the world and which instead was completely "defeated ”From the offensive of the pandemic enemy without the“ Italian system ”as a whole (political, administrative, health care, etc.) being able to devise an effective reaction strategy.

Some voices, rather hastily, have been tempted to "rejoice" at the current situation by stating that the pandemic will have positive effects on the INPS coffers and will free up resources in terms of endowments and inheritances in favor of younger groups who will thus be able to reinvest them in the economic system giving you new life and vitality.

The author of the present analysis believes that these are only meaningless fantasies. First of all, any "positive effect" that the death of our grandparents and elderly parents (let's try to have the courage to call things by their real name!) May have had on INPS accounts, has been largely burned by the economic crisis induced by the pandemic itself. Second, considering that, even before the economic crisis, an abnormal number of Italian families (especially in the South) literally reached the end of the day thanks to the retirement pensions of "grandparents", the sudden end of this "sustenance" risks leaving us a legacy "Social bomb" difficult to defuse. Finally, truly believing that "young and old" will happily start investing any "rich inheritances" now as if there were no tomorrow is opiate abuse.

On the contrary, given the persistence of the situation of uncertainty and without clear prospects for the future, it is much more likely that the aforementioned individuals opt instead to increase the level of personal savings with the consequence of plunging the economy into the so-called "savings paradox. "(Ie decrease in consumption by families and individuals with consequent subtraction of resources from the economy in general which, after a series of intermediate steps, ultimately results in a further decline in incomes) with the final result that this scenario would end up by further exacerbate the deflationary spiral in which our economy has already plunged for at least 4 years.

The sum of the demographic crisis, the health crisis and the economic-social crisis is equivalent to a catastrophe even for a modern country like the Italian Republic. What will be the overall balance of the "World War Coronavirus" on the Italian demography is, to date, difficult to predict for the simple fact that the events are still in full swing. However, we can conclude our narration by looking at the future scenarios on the evolution of Italian demography as they were formulated before the outbreak of the pandemic.

Depending on whether you want to adopt a pessimistic or optimistic view, Italy would lose between 2040 and 4 million inhabitants between now and 16. To those who believe that the worst scenario is exaggerated, it must be remembered that the phenomena of demographic collapse of a state reality always begin in a "harmonious" way but soon have the tendency to assume an exponential trend when the demographic retreat breaks the hinges on which the economic and social systems are based.

The last time that the Italian peninsula faced a systemic crisis of this type was at the time of the "Gothic War" which opposed the Kingdom of the Ostrogoths to the Eastern Roman Empire between 535 and 562 AD.

What effects the occurrence of such a scenario may have on the stability of the political system and of the state in general are considerations that the author leaves the readers to freely do. In any case, it is necessary to underline here that the Italian demographic collapse, with all its complex ramifications, must once again be taken seriously by the ruling elites because the victory or defeat that our nation will bring in this "battle" will sprout the seeds (whatever they are) of our future.

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