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Family size has been shrinking in the industrialized world for decades, and in Italy, the decline has been particularly dramatic. A generation ago, Italian mothers commonly had more than four children. Now they average less than two. Demographers warn that a shrinking population could yield an unprecedented economic crisis. Special correspondent Christopher Livesay reports from Sicily.
Family sizes have been steadily shrinking around the industrialized world for decades. And Italy is a prime example.
Just a generation ago, four children was the norm. Today, the average family has fewer than two.
And as special correspondent Christopher Livesay reports from Sicily, demographers warn that the shrinking population could drag the country into an unprecedented economic crisis.
Little Saverio is just 13 days old, born here in the Sicilian town of Nicosia.
Giacomo di Marter:
It's special for the hospital, and very, very special to us.
Special to them because it's their first child. Special to the hospital because he's the only newborn here. The birth rate here is so low, the maternity ward has risked closing, says Dr. Maria Rosaria Vena, who oversees it.
Dr. Maria Rosaria Vena (through translator):
It's a bit sad to see all these empty beds, because, when there aren't any births, we feel like we're wasting hours of our time.
How many births were there last year in total?
About 200 births, whereas, when I started working here 20 years ago, there were about 400 every year.
So just in the span of 20 years, half of the births have gone?
Yes. That's why there's always the risk they could shut us down. To justify a maternity ward, you have to have a minimum 500 annual births. But the nearest other hospital is a very long and difficult drive away. If they close this hospital, some mothers would end up giving birth on the side of the road.
Across the hall, I meet 20-year-old Lorena Scriffignano, the only expectant mother in the ward.
Lorena Scriffignano (through translator):
I don't have any friends who are pregnant. It's really hard to raise a family. I don't have a job. And the father has to drive an hour and 30 minutes to work. So he's going to be away a lot. And my child isn't going to have many friends his own age.
It's a scene repeating itself across Italy. Census figures show the national population is steadily shrinking, the first time that's happened in 90 years, due in large part to the declining birthrate.
The average Italian family today only has 1.2 children, says Angelo Mazza, a professor of demographics at the University of Catania in Sicily.
There's that idea of the Italian family with lots of kids. I mean, what could be more Italian than that?
I'll tell you that fertility rates have been going down from the mid-'60s. To replace the population, every woman should make at least two babies during her life. I mean, that's logic. And 1.2 is kind of far from two.
So why are Italians just not having as many children as they used to?
Well, it is not because they don't want to. They feel that conditions are not good enough to have two babies, because you need to get a job, a proper job. And it may happen that this doesn't give you enough time to fulfill your wishes, your reproductive wishes.
Italy's economy has been reeling since the 2008 global economic crisis. The youth unemployment rate stands at a staggering 35 percent, prompting young people to both hold off on starting a family and leave in search of work.
Last year, more than 150,000 Italians emigrated abroad. Factor in the plunge in pregnancies, and you have the only major European economy with a population forecast to decline even further over the next five years.
Take, for example, the town of Acquaviva Platani in Sicily. Today, it has only 800 inhabitants, down from roughly 3,700 in the '50s. Founded four centuries ago, the town's narrow streets and position high atop a hill once made it difficult for invaders to pillage.
Today, young people find it difficult to live and work here, says Mayor Salvatore Caruso.
Salvatore Caruso (through translator):
There's hardly any industry. A number of young people have gone to live in the north or abroad either to study or to work.
It's hard to imagine young couples coming here if they don't have work. Today, the majority of the population is elderly, so there are hardly any births.
How many births are we talking about?
I believe, last year, there were five or six, and we will have around that this year too.
Over the years, he says, vanishing families has meant shrinking class sizes, forcing them to combine age groups, and, in some, close schools.
But if people aren't having children anymore, does your town run the risk of eventually dying?
There's a gap of 10 to 15 people every year between births and deaths. So it's certainly possible.
Walking the empty streets, I meet some of those few young people still living here. They all share the same part-time job, one of the few left in town, caretaking for the elderly.
Alessandro (through translator):
It would be nice to raise a family in my hometown. But I don't know if I have a future here. I really think I will have to leave. I don't want to see my town disappear, but, in the end, we have to look out for ourselves.
Italy is second in the world only to Japan for having the highest concentration of senior citizens. If more young people leave, it's a vicious circle for the town and country.
If we have less children today, we're going to have less parents tomorrow, and even less children and so forth, you know?
So what are some of the problems that we might run into?
Eventually, the population could extinguish. And when baby boomers will retire, you know, you're going to have a small amount of individuals taking care of a larger amount of the old people.
Things are going to be even worse in the next 10 or 20 years.
Only 10 or 20 years? That's right around the corner.
Yes, that's the emergency.
It's an emergency?
It's an emergency, yes. It's a real emergency.
But solutions exist, he says. The government could incentivize childbirth, much as neighboring France has done, by investing more in day care, longer parental leaves, and tax exemptions to parents.
They have now almost the same population that Italy does. You know that they have 65 percent more children every year there.
In France, yes, than in Italy, 65 percent more.
Sixty-five percent more?
Yes. Yes. Yes.
The other solution, migrants, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. They have been steadily arriving in Italy for years, offsetting much of the decline in population.
Last year, however, Italy began to ban migrant ships and enact other measures to lower immigration to the country. If Italy continues to block migration from outside Europe, then half of the population will die out by the end of the century, according to the E.U.'s statistics agency.
Back in Acquaviva Platani, Alessia Boscarini manages a cafe, where she's recently given her shrinking town a bump of hope.
Alessia Boscarini (through translator):
He's due in just a few weeks. His name is Alessandro, our first. It's very exciting, because there are so few babies born from our town every year. This will only be the fifth this year. It's such a big event that the town rings the church bells every time a baby is born.
But with that birth several weeks away, the bells remain silent, as they have for most of the year.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Christopher Livesay in Acquaviva Platani, Sicily.
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Christopher Livesay is a foreign correspondent and producer based in Rome.
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