Monday, October 11, 2004

Mamma mia...what was Malthus thinking?

As the stereotype goes, Italians have big families, right? This morning NPR did a story on Italy's population problem where they quoted some surprising numbers: right now people over the age of 65 outnumber people under the age of 15, and, based on this trend, some predict that by 2050 the 57.5 million Italians will shrink by over 12 million. Italy's birth rate, among the lowest in the world, hovers at 1.3 babies per woman (compared to 2.07/woman in the US). Experts have given a few reasons for the decline:

1. Italy's increased affluence and easier access to education.
2. A delayed transition to adulthood. (You'd be amazed at how many 30 year olds I knew in Italy who were as dependant on their mom as I was at age 14)
3. A lack of child care facilities
4. An absence of state incentives to have bigger families. (Because of Italy's history of facism, a lot of politicians are reluctant to pass seemingly authoritarian policies to encourage family growth.)
5. The feminist revolution in Italy was especially strong.
6. One of the most interesting reasons I found was in a study done by demographer Letizia Mencarini. She argues that part of the decline in childbirth is due to Italian men. Because less than 6% help with household chores, women feel overly burdened by child-rearing. The men won't help with kids, so the women don't want any.

Sure these are interesting facts, but really, if Italians don't want to make babies what does it matter? It doesn't, really, unless Italy wants to hold on to the affluence that created this baby-bust. According to some experts, this growing number of old-folks (my word, not theirs) and an amazingly generous pension system could lead to the country's financial collapse.

While in the United States this problem isn't nearly as dramatic, the baby boomers retiring may presents us with similar problems about social security. And it seems that American women are waiting more to have children and having less when they do. What do you guys make of this? Do you think Italy is an exception and we don't fit that mold? (not just as LDS, but more as americans) What do you make of the fact that while birthrates in Europe are in decline, they remain astronomically high in the third-world and middle east? Assuming things stay the same, what do you imagine the demographics of the world to look like in 100 or 200 years? Any implications for LDS people? Your thoughts please.


At 10/13/2004 02:12:00 PM,

Good topic!

"Experts have given a few reasons for the decline:"

Which "experts" are you quoting? I'm just always wary of self-styled sociological experts, especially as I was a sociology major in college and found a fair amount of hot air and proof-by-assertion in my readings.

I don't claim to be an expert of any sort, just an observer of humanity, so I'd like to examine these purported reasons for low birth rate.

"1. Italy's increased affluence and easier access to education."
Yup. This is an interesting development - that GDP per capita does indeed have a negative correlation with birthrate. After all, as mentioned in the original post, numerous third-world countries have high birthrates; the parents don't mind raising a lot of children in poverty partially because these children are often expected to work in the family business/farm as soon as they're old enough to walk. By age eight or so the children may be effectively paying their own way. In developed countries, however, compulsory education and a relative lack of low-skill jobs keep children out of the labor force until their teens and twenties, meaning that the children are a net economic burden for the parents.

"2. A delayed transition to adulthood." That's not a satisfying explanation for low birthrate because that in itself needs an explanation.

"3. A lack of child care facilities"
I'm not really buying it. If there's demand for child care services outside the home, day care and similar business will rise up to meet the demand just as they have in this country. I happen to think that day care is a terrible substitute for personalized maternal care, so I'm not advocating that Italian entrepreneurs build a lot of soulless corporate baby-holding-tanks, but if the Italians wanted them, they would be there.

"4. An absence of state incentives to have bigger families."
I'm not too sure about this one either. Do married couples (and/or unmarried couples) really have tax breaks or other government policies near the tops of their minds when they decide to conceive children? It seems doubtful.
The obvious exception here is in China where they have a one-child-per-couple policy, but that policy is extremely anomalous.

"5. The feminist revolution in Italy was especially strong."
This is an extermely complicated issue and I'd rather not get into it. I'll say this much, though - nobody can glibly blame low birthrate on the actions of the members of any single sex. It takes two to tango.

6. "Because less than 6% help with household chores, women feel overly burdened by child-rearing. The men won't help with kids, so the women don't want any."

Now, that's just awful. Sounds like a valid complaint to me.

As I was reading this post, an alternate explanation popped into my head:
7. The desire for quick gratification without responsibility.
It's not that this desire is necessarily stronger in this generation than it was among previous generations; the important development is that there are more ways of getting quick gratification than ever before.
For example, today, credit is easier to come by than ever before in America and in many other countries. Thus people are more likely to try to live beyond their means, and the ever-increasing incidences of bankruptcies indicate that many are failing to meet the responsibility of paying off their debts.
For another example, there are more types of illicit drugs available in America (and elsewhere) today than ever before, and they are easier to purchase than ever before. Even seemingly-ordinary people tear down their lives bit by bit as they go after quick highs even though they realize that the long-term consequences can be devastating.
And for a final example, one that applies to the topic at hand: there are more types of birth control available today than ever before. This increasingly allows people to engage in casual noncommittal sex, which many make a sport of during their most fertile years; they'd prefer to go for the quick gratification of sexual encouters with whomever's close at hand, rather than put in the effort to build up a stable loving relationship. Of course, the practice of "using" others for sex (or being used) is incredibly degrading to one's self-esteem and can easily lead to depression, but many folks aren't thinking about the long-term consequences at all when they're drunkedly rushing off to bed with a random hottie. (On a somewhat related note, I saw "Sex and the City" for the first time last night and was appalled.)

Increasingly these days, when I see or hear of people who are suffering under afflictions as severe as war, or as minor as the low birth rate in Italy that will bankrupt the pension system, I can't help but think about how much these people need the Gospel in their lives.

Sorry if this post is too preachy or otherwise annoying, but it's more interesting to ponder these issues than the projects that are piling up on my desk. :) 

Posted by Chris Potter




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