"Italians have fewer children because they 'love them too much' and not the other way around" Rossella Palomba, Italy, The Invisible Change
Italy went to the polls last weekend. Manuel Alvarez has a good summary of the election process on Global Economy Matters (and a full page over at Election Resources on the Internet on Italy's electoral system), while I have carried out an in-depth economic analysis on the same blog. Basically Italy's economy has been the worst performing of the OECD economies over the last decade - and by some distance.
Italy is thus topping lists worldwide as the developed economy in the worst economic shape. The country came last in terms of labor productivity - a key measure of economic growth and competitiveness - in a recent inter-country comparison carried out by the 30-member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. No other developed economy has just been through three recessions in five years (2000 - 2005 and now heading into its fourth) and Italy is in fact coming to look more and more like the Japan of the "lost decade" - even down to the huge increase in the government debt to GDP ratio (currently around 103%). It is clear that Italy is now saddled with a whole plethora of economic problems that are holding it back, not the least of them its loss of overall competitiveness.
But Italy's export dependence and growth lethargy is not simply a result of the fact that Italy has not reformed sufficiently and as a consequence has become uncompetitive (the standard "institutions matter" explanation, which is of course valid as far as it goes), Italy's problems also need to be seen in the context of her rapidly ageing population, since it is this phenomenon which lies behind the ongoing lack of "gusto" in Italy's domestic consumption and it is precisely this consumption weakness in the context of non-competitve exports which makes Italy whole growth and debt position so unstable - and this is the part the "standard explanation" normally misses, and indeed this lethargic domestic consumption growth is what separates Italy from other - younger - current account deficit running economies like Spain (which is surely hardly any more "competitive" at the export level, indeed arguably it is a lot less so, as we may be about to see as the housing boom steadily disintegrates). Yet Spain has, of course, enjoyed rather stellar economic growth for as long as it had its housing bubble, so another way of putting the question might be to ask why Italy didn't get a housing bubble, even though it had exactly the same monetary conditions - thanks to the euro and the ECB - as Spain did.
It's The Demography, Silly!
Well, one of the features of Italy's present economic malaise which many comentators fail to dwell on in their otherwise illuminating analyses is the underlying long-term demography, and underlying that demography is Italy's long term fertility, since it is this, when coupled with the ongoing rise in life expectancy, which means that the Italian population is now one of the oldest on the planet.
Fertility in Italy is, as is very well known I imagine, currently running at very low levels - the US census bureau estimate a 1.29 TFR for 2007. What is possibly less well known is that Italian fertility has been below replacement for 30 years now, and the fertility rate is still stubbornly resisting upward movement.
But within the uniformity encapsulated in the national TFR there lies difference, and in Italy's case the differences are important since regional variations in demographic, economic, and social patterns have been - and are - pronounced. Fertility first fell to replacement level in parts of the North beginning with the 1910 birth cohort, while as late as the early 1980s the TFR in a number of southern regions was still above replacement level, with the highest (2.3) being found in Campania (whose capital is Naples). At that time the TFR was 1.1 in the northeastern region of Liguria, and below 1.2 in Emilia-Romagna in the center (capital Bologna). Over the last two decades of the 20th century, while fertility in northern and central Italy has remained more or less stable, the southern regions have had continuing sharp declines in fertility. By the turn of the century Campania, although still having the highest fertility nationally, had a TFR of only 1.5, while Sardinia, which is normally known for its economic underdevelopment, rugged terrain, and traditionalism, and which in 1960 had the highest TFR in Italy (3.5), had Italy’s lowest fertility (1.04).
Labour Force Participation and Fertility in Italy
Sardinia’s 2003 TFR of 1.06 was registered in a region where only 58% of the women in the 25-34 age group (and 55% in the 35-44 one) were in the labor force. By contrast, Trentino, the Northeastern region with the second highest fertility rate in the whole of Italy (TFR=1.46), had a female labour force participation rate of 76% in the 25-34 age group. In short, detailed cross-sectional examination of the relationship between female labour force participation (FLFP) and fertility across the Italian regions offers little support for economic-emancipation theory as a general explanation of low fertility.
In fact just this was the conclusion reached in what is a useful and interesting working paper(published 2006) - Italy’s path to very low fertility: the adequacy of economic and second demographic transition theories - by David Kertzer, Michael White, Laura Bernardi and Giuseppe Gabrielli. The authors examine a variety of competing economic and cultural explanations for Italy's ongoing low fertility -and draw on recent longitudinal data to investigate the timing of first unions, and first and second births. Their event-history analysis offers some support for BOTH the cultural and the economic theories of family formation and fertility, but as they argue most forcefully, the extent of regional differences and of secularization suggests that each explanation is at best incomplete on its own.
They find, for example, that women in the North of Italy are much more likely to be in the paid labor force than those in the South: in the mid- 1990s, 64% of women aged 20-49 in the northwest, but only 36% in the South, did paid work. Even more strikingly, 41% of the southern women had never been in the labor force, compared to only 7% of those in the Northwest. Indeed, the increase in FLFP has been quite modest in the South, with the proportion of women who had ever entered the labor force rising only from 41% among those born before 1929 to 51% in the 1944-58 birth cohort (compared to 84% in the North) and little sign of any increase since then. Among women with children under age six in the mid-1990s, 62% of the northerners and only 31% of the southerners were employed. In a 1998 national sample survey which asked individuals if they had ever been in the paid labor force the persistence of strong regional differences, and particularly the North-South contrast, was clear since in the South 50% of the 1941-50 birth cohort had never entered the labor force, while in the North only 20% had not had some sort of job or other.
The Kertzer et al research is of some general interest given that theorists have often presented us with two rival "paradigmatic" explanations - one economic and the other cultural - in an attempt to account for the arrival of below replacement fertility in one developed society after another since the 1970s. On the one hand many scholars have argued that ultra-low fertility could be straightforwardly explained by the massive entry of women into the extra-domestic labor force. Others have remained unconvinced that a purely economic approach is sufficient, and have suggested that underlying and ongoing culture change has been the key driver generating very low fertility. In just this vein, Second Demographic Transition (SDT) theorists have pointed changing cultural values associated with a move away from "familism" toward self realization and from religious attachments toward secularism as the key driving factors.
In this context the emergence of Italy and Spain as the countries with lowest-low fertility has proved something of an embarrassment for SDT theorists. Indeed, it would have been hard to find two European societies whose characteristics fitted in so badly with either of the main theories. Far from having particularly high rates of female labor force participation (FLFP) as the economically oriented theory would have predicted, both have had unusually low rates, and far from having weak family bonds and weak religious institutions, the countries had some of the strongest family ties and what appeared - on the surface at least - to be among the most influential church institutions in Europe.
Evidently Italy’s situation as one of the lowest fertility level societies in Europe does not correlate with a relatively high women’s labor force participation rate, but quite the reverse. In 1990, just as Italy was about to reach "poll position" as having the lowest fertility rate in Europe, its FLFP rate for the central age group 25-54 was 54%, compared to an EU-15 average of 64%. Neighboring France, with a much higher fertility had a FLFP rate in the same age group of 72%. The UK also had much higher fertility and much higher FLFP rate (73%). Since that time, Italy’s FLFP rate has risen somewhat, but its relative position has not changed much (the EU-15 FLFP rate in the 25- age group had climbed to 76% by 2004) and the increased female labor force participation was not accompanied by any further decline in Italian fertility. And one other detail should not escape our notice here, and that is that while we have seen a tendency toward convergence in fertility rates between the North and the South of Italy, this move has not been accompanied by any similar convergence in FLFP rates between North and South.
Secularism and Family Ties
Equally, far from being marked by weak family ties and a strong drive toward individualism, Italy is striking for the strength of its family ties. Italy is rightly regarded as being among those European countries having a strong system of family ties in which traditionally the family group has had priority over the individual, and this is a centuries old dichotomy which has long divided European societies along an axis running from North to South. In 1994, for example, 21% and 22% of people aged 25-29 were living with their parents in the UK and France respectively. The comparable figures were 66% for Italy and 65% for Spain. In 1995, 71% of all Italians aged 20-29 were living with their parents, compared to 33% in France and 31% in the UK.
Various post hoc economic explanations have been given for this kind of pattern - the high cost of housing, young adult unemployment, etc. - but none of these are really that convincing, not least because survey after survey seems to show that fully-employed young Italian adults find it to their liking to remain in the parental home, where they typically pay almost nothing for their upkeep, have their mother do all their cooking and wash, and can spend money on cars, vacations, discos or whatever.
Similarly, Italian illegitimacy ratios, divorce rates, and nonmarital childbearing are a small fraction of those found in northern Europe, and the use of modern contraception is much lower in Italy.
So while an examination of regional differences raises serious questions about the adequacy of an explanation focusing on women’s entry into the world of work, attempts to link cultural differences of the sort theorized by SDT theorists to fertility levels also proves to be problematic when you start to look at Italy's regions.
SDT theory tends to emphasise secularization and a movement away from religious values and religious identities. In the Italian context one way to capture such an impact might be by examining the spread of civil marriage, since for a couple to choose a civil marriage rather than a religious one involves making some sort of public statement of their distanciation from the Church, and the substantial regional variations which exists in the practice makes it a potentially valuable test of SDT theory. In 2001 73% of all Italian marriages were religious ones. In Italy’s largest northern regions - Piedmont, Lombardy, Veneto, Liguria - the proportion of religious marriages was in the 60 to 69% range, while in Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany, the heart of Italy’s red belt, with a strongly anticlerical and left-wing tradition, only 63% of weddings were celebrated in Church. In contrast, in no part of the mainland South was the percentage of religious marriages under 80%, and in the deep South (Puglia, Basilicata, Calabria) the figure was nearer 90%.
Yet plotting regional TFR against percentage of religious marriages in 2003 Kertzer et al found little evidence of any link between secularization and low fertility. Italy’s least secularized region using this measure was the deep southern region of Basilicata, where only 9% of marriages were celebrated outside the church, yet in 2003 Basilicata’s TFR was 1.20, actually below the national average. Perhaps it is also worth noting that Basilicata also had among the lowest FLFP rates in Italy, with only 46% of women aged 25-34 in the labor force.
Too Much Love Too Much Family?
Given that Italy’s regional differences appear to be revealing contextual effects that are not captured by either existing economic or SDT theory, effects which may be rooted in factors like social networks, provision of local public services, availability of kin, and, especially, sociocultural norms regarding family building, it might in fact be useful to look at other - rival - explanations. One such explanation has been advanced by leading Italian demographer Massimo Livi-Bacci. Livvi-Bacci argues that, and contrary to the initial assumptions of standard SDT theory, it may well be the very surfeit of "familism" in societies like Italy that is perpetuating the very low fertility. This is the sense in which I read my initial quote from Rosella Palomba that Italians "love their children too much", not s meaning that in other societies parents do not love their children, but as meaning that it is this very "excess" of family attention which effectively frustrates many of the possibilities which exist in other - less familiaristic societies - for young women to take autonomous decisions go ahead and have children. Intergenerational bonds of loyalty and affection effectively put a brake on cultural change and individual initiative, and given the top heavy shape of the present Italian population pyramid this "cultural conservatism" may only get worse and worse.
So maybe we should take the persistence over time of strong family ties as an important component in explaining the immovability of lowest-low fertility in both Italy and Spain over the last 25 years . As one influential paper by Livi-Bacci puts it, what we may well have in these countries is “Too few children and too much family”.
What Livi-Bacci effectively argues is that it is the intense inter-connection between generations which leads to a prolonged period of dependency in the younger generation, and that this leads the younger generation to avoid, postpone, and finally limit their assumption of parental responsibilities and commitments. Although this theory is an extremely hard one to test, the argument is an attractive one and, given the prominent place occupied by familistic societies among the pioneers of very low fertility, certainly worth examining closely.
Family differences between the North and the South of Europe are not recent in origin, and in fact profound differences in kinship systems lie at the heart of them, since young people in southern Europe have never left home as early as their northern European counterparts have consistently done. And despite the fact that the transition from rural to urban societies has brought about a good deal of change, the distinction between societies with strong or weak family ties certainly seems to endure. One of the most remarkable features of these intergenerational links is the way in which they are reflected in physical space. Indeed the physical proximity over time between children and parents in Italy may even have increased, since young Italian adults not only are now leaving the family home later, even when they do finally go they often end up living at a very close distance to their parents, almost as if they had never left the village. Furthermore, visits and telephone calls between parents and children occur with much greater frequency in Latin cultures than would be considered normal in Northern Europe.
A 1994 national survey found that, among young wives in the 25-34 age group, 29% lived in the same home or same building as their parents, another 37% were within one kilometer, and an additional 19% in the same town. These figures were little different for older women who had living parents. In 2005 it was found that Italian children are more likely to live near parents than those in any other European country. Separate data show that during the last thirty year of the 20th century only 30% of newly married Italian couples settled farther than one kilometre away from at least one set of parents, and one in four settled at less than one kilometre from both sets of parents.
One recent study found an interest difference between the Italian and the British patterns of family communication. Even in the UK most children tend to live not too far from their parents , since over 60% live at less than a half hour journey - or within 16 km - in both countries, Britons tend to phone their parents far less frequently and to actually visit them less often. For example, over 28% of British adult children visit their parents less than once a month, while only 12% of Italians do this; at the other end of the scale 37% of young adult Italians Italians say they visit their parents on a daily basis, while only about 11% of young British adults do so.
Also of note, the presence of siblings reduces the pressure on children to provide assistance to parents in both countries, but when we come to think about this Italy's low fertility means that the phenomenon of having siblings has been declining, and hence we have a reinforcing mechanism here which implies that the few children who are born will be under even greater distancial and communicational constraint in relation to their parents.
Cohabitation in Italy
Another area where parental approval (or disapproval) may be important is in the decision to cohabit - either prior to or instead of getting married In the mid-1990s, roughly one woman in three in the 25-29 age group in Sweden and Denmark was cohabiting; in France more than one woman in four was doing so, while in Germany and the Netherlands the equivalent figure was more like one woman in six. In Italy at the same time less than one woman in 20 was cohabiting.
Since non-marital cohabitation is a pretty public act then it may well be that children of parents who believe that cohabitation is not acceptable may decide not to cohabit in order to avoid embarrassment for or conflict with their parents. The result may be that couples who want to enter informal cohabitation but whose parents disapprove of it may also prefer to marry rather than to cohabit. This would seem to be especially true for Italian children, since the need for children to receive parental approval and hence support is extremely important in a southern European context, especially since the welfare state is historically characterized by a "familialistic" approach, expressed in the exitence of important transfers towards older generations and comparatively little in the way of direct help for the young.
In this context parental attitudes concerning household formation choices have an important influence on their children when they decide to form (or not to form) a household, net of the attitudes and values of these children themselves. There is plenty of empirical evidence that during the household formation decision-making process Italian parents are very willing to provide generous support to their children if they conform to parental expectations, in buying a home for example.
One area where this need for parental approval is immediately evident is in the high degree of synchronisation which exists between leaving the parental home and marriage. More than 80% of Italian women born in the 1960s left the family home directly to get married. This percentage is nearer to 40% for women in Northern Europe born in the same cohort. Over 85% of first unions in Italy are still marriages, and above all marriage remains the place for young Italians to become parents. And for younger Italians both the family and marriage continue to be considered to be among the most important corefundamental values, with more than 85%of young people in the 18-24 age group declaring marriage not to be an outdated institution, and that more attention should be given to the family in recent opinion surveys. Such a high percentage of pro-marriage attitudes has hardly any equal, neither in Western or Eastern Europe.
One strong possibility we need to consider is that the relatively low level of cohabitation in Italy is not so much the result of a low level of secularisation and a strong influence fromthe Catholic Church, but rather the result of the strong ties which exist between parents and children whereby parents support the young adult, not simply up to the age of consent, but also until he/she has reached a satisfactory employment situation and will normally involve substantial help while he/she is getting married, in particular (but not only) in the purchase of a house. As we have seen the strength of this bond is marked by the residential proximity which exists between parents and married children, by the continuous help by the parents to their children even after they are married (grandparents as babyminders), and by the comparative absence of cohabitation and children born out of wedlock.
It is perhaps worth noting that while in Italy the incidence of – heterosexual – cohabitations has remained fairly stable until recently, it did increase between the 1991 and 2001 censuses, although even by 2001 it still only involved about 4% of all couples. Marriage is still by large the prevalent form of settling in a first couple relationship for heterosexuals, although the most recent data does indicate that in the younger marriage cohorts one every 4 marriages has been preceded by a cohabitation, and that cohabitations have also increased in duration. Indeed recent research does seem to be showing that an increased acceptance of cohabitation by a parental generation (the key indicator here, not the children) with a higher level of education in the Centre-North of Italy is leading to a wider adoption of the practice by the young. There is however little evidence as yet that this increase in cohabitation is leading to an increase in childbirth outside marriage.
At the same time, it should be pointed out that in Italy cohabiting instead of marrying has long been the province not of young people entering their first partnership, but of mature adults who have had a marriage dissolution. The impossibility to obtain adivorce before 1970 and the long process through involved in obtaining one even today mean there is a long waiting period during which couples often cohabit simply because they are not in a position to remarry.
Basically what has been argued here is that low fertility is a complex phenomenon, where a variety of factors come into play, and that the driving forces - for either higher or lower dertility - may well vary from one country or region to another. In particular the theoretical assumptions behind some of the traditional views of fertility decline - the labour market participation thesis , and the second demographic transition "secularisation" one - while not being entirely erroneous have at best only limited explanatory power when confronted with a detailed examination of what has actually happened in practice.
In particular it has been suggested here that underlying kinship structures form one important and intriguing part of the puzzle. In general it has been the case that fertility is higher where family ties between parents and children are weaker (as in Northern Europe and the English-speaking countries generally), and where “new” types of marital behaviour (eg cohabitation, extramarital fertility and marriage disruption) have become widespread, and where gender roles, both within couples and in society at large, have become more balanced. The bottom line would seem to be that the association between the waning of the “traditional” family and the arrival of lowest-low fertility seems to be negated by what has happened in Southern Europe over the last 20 odd years. What would now be very interesting would be to see some studies of Eastern Europe and low fertility Asian countries to examine what similarities and differences are to be found.
Italy’s path to very low fertility: the adequacy of economic and second demographic transition theories by David Kertzer, Michael White, Laura Bernardi and Giuseppe Gabrielli.
Rosina, A. and Fraboni, R. (2004). Is marriage losing its centrality in Italy? DemographicResearch, 11:149–172
Livi Bacci M. (2001). “Too Few Children and Too Much Family”, Dedalus, 130, 3:
Gianpiero Dalla Zuanna, Social mobility and fertility, Demographic Research: Volume 17, Article 15.
Paola Di Giulio and Alessandro Rosina, Intergenerational family ties and the
diffusion of cohabitation in Italy, Demographic Research
Volume 16, Article 14, Pages 441-468