Italy's fertility rate falls as women reject childbearing

BMJ 1996; 312 doi: (Published 02 March 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;312:530
  1. Lucinda Evans

    The size of the Italian family has shrunk dramatically, according to government statistics. The definitive version of Italy's 1991 census, recently published by the National Institute of Statistics, shows that the average family fell to 2.8 members compared with 3.4 in 1971. Most families have either only one child or none.

    Underlying the drop is a fall in fertility that has put Italy on course for zero population growth. In the 10 years before the census was taken, Italy's population grew by just 221000. Italy has a population of 57500000.

    By 1991, the traditional view of the Italian family was rapidly disintegrating. Children aged under 6 years formed 5.8% of the population, while people aged over 65 years made up 15.3%. There was roughly only one grandchild for every three grandparents.

    The decrease in fertility started in the middle of the 1960s and accelerated in the 1970s. The reasons for it are hotly disputed. Antonella Pinnelli, professor of social demography at La Sapienza University, has done comparative studies on fertility in Italy and other European countries. She says that one factor is that Italy remains, in many ways, a traditional society.

    “Most families are stable. There are very few divorces, very few births outside marriage, very few cohabitations. It is normal for young people to continue to live with their parents until they marry,” she says. “Another factor is that more young Italians are choosing not to marry these days or are marrying later because they are spending longer in further education. This is true in other European countries but here it is more of a phenomenon.”

    Roman Catholic leaders have argued that young Italians are unwilling to have several children because they are more concerned with giving themselves material comforts and possessions. But the anthropologist and writer Ida Magli has a more controversial view of why Italy's fertility rate is falling. She says: “No one wants to say the truth—that Italian women don't want to be mothers. In this country, there is no help for a mother with a child. So maternity destroys her chances of working and realising herself.”

    Professor Pinnelli said, “There is also very little flexibility in working hours—virtually no part time jobs, for example—and in the career structure. A woman here cannot, say, leave a medium or high level job for three to four years and then just re-enter the labour market at the same level when she wants to.”—LUCINDA EVANS, freelance journalist, Rome

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