Demographic decline and immigration in Italy

nov022010
Skrivet av GianPaolo Salvini
PDFSkriv ut

altaltThe basic thesis [of the demographers Francesco C. Billari and Gianpiero Dalla Zuanna] is that the Italian population is not at all in decline, not even statistically, thanks to massive immigration from abroad.

In Italy in 2008 (including foreigners awaiting regularization) there were 60.3 million people, almost three million more than ten years earlier. In some cities, like Milan, Turin, and Florence, the birth rate is 40-50 percent higher than it was in the mid-1990's. "Over the last decade, the rapidity of the aging trend has diminished, despite the constant rise in the life expectancy of the elderly, thanks to the entry of three million new young citizens, often coming from faraway countries. What is happening today and the trends for the immediate future suggest that a genuine demographic revolution has emerged and is growing. Precisely this: a revolution, not a decline. At least for the next twenty or thirty years, powerful mechanisms will be at work that will permit the Italian population to renew itself, without aging in a socially unsustainable way.
How in the world can the majority of observers continue to talk about demographic decline and emphasize the inevitable imbalance that is being produced between working age and retired people? Above all because they base themselves on mistaken predictions, starting with those of the UN population division.

According to the two demographers, the projections indicated are not reliable, in the first place because the starting population is significantly underestimated, because the foreigners who are undocumented but permanent residents in Italy are not counted. Like it or not, almost all of these will be regularized sooner or later, as has always happened over the past 15 years. But the UN also supposes that 140,000 immigrants will enter Italy every year for the next 20 years, while in the period between 1999 and 2004 about 300,000 people entered Italy each year, and this figure remained steady over the next three years. If this trend were to continue, there would be no reduction in the number of workers or of people under the age of 20, even if the number of the elderly continued to increase because of the progressive extension of the average life span, and of the fact that the many children of the baby boom, born between 1950 and 1970, will be going into retirement.

Many see immigration as a drag on economic development, or at the most an insufficient remedy to compensate for the obstruction of the normal mechanisms of population replacement, birth and death, which in many languages are still considered the only two "natural" components of demographic development. But when the scholars "talk about natural replacement or migratory replacement, they more or less consciously formulate a value judgment ('for demography, a birth is better than an immigrant'), playing with the fire of racist and nationalist prejudice." It is also good to evoke the history of Italy, which has always seen profound rearrangements of population both from one region to another and from abroad: Germans in various valleys of the Alps, Greeks and Albanians in the south, etc. The thesis of the book that we are presenting is that "a population closed to migrant models, with less than two children per woman, is inevitably destined to age and - in the long run - to disappear, even when the mortality rate is very low."

To what has been said it can be added that in Italy, the phenomenon of immigration from poor countries not only was seen later than in other European countries (some of them already accustomed to recruiting unskilled manual labor in their colonies), but the speed with which it took place was entirely unexpected, setting a true record. In October of 1981, 210,000 foreigners were found to be living in Italy, only 60,000 of them born in countries poorer than Italy. In the middle of 2008, more than 4 million foreigners were living in Italy, almost all of them from poor countries. [...] The areas with heavy influxes of immigrants are often the most [economically] dynamic, and this is a dynamism that is destined to prolong itself. In 2007, one third of the new hires in the Veneto region were foreigners. It doesn't take much to understand that in areas of great prosperity there is demand for manual labor to take care of the activities that the prosperity acquired permits one to avoid, but that are indispensable for living well: housekeeping, cooking, laundry, etc.

Even if this phenomenon is deplorable on many levels, it is likely that Italians will continue to have few children, less than 1.5 per woman. [...] The renewal of the Italian population, like it or not, will therefore be guaranteed by the foreign immigrants. [...] The problem that is raised is that of knowing if this influx will continue over the next couple of decades.

There is no lack of those who are thinking about solutions other than immigration, or at least complementary with it. For example, by raising the retirement age by several years, or making it easier for women to reenter the work force after childbirth, or drastically increasing productivity (the amount produced by each worker), so as to reduce the need for manual labor on the part of businesses. But according to demographers, these three hypotheses, none of which can be overlooked, will not be sufficient to make up for the lack of workers. In addition to the need on the part of businesses, there is the social problem of paying pensions in a system in which these are paid by those currently working. The number of retirees will certainly increase and in a substantial way, and this will make it indispensable to expand the base of active workers, because it is not reasonable to hypothesize a drastic reduction in pensions. Those who are aging, in fact, are the voters, who would react vigorously to substantial cuts in their pensions.

Naturally, one can always hope for a near-term recovery in the birth rate, but this increase would not change the picture of the next few years, characterized by a dramatic reduction of the working age Italian population. Those newly born, in fact, would in any case enter the labor market after 2030, and, in the meantime, there could be a need for new foreign workers if the resumption of births were to remove a significant number of women from the work force, or were to increase the demand for domestic work.

From what we have said, it seems inevitable that for the next two decades, Italy will have to welcome almost 300,000 immigrants between the ages of 20 and 59 each year, the same number that have entered annually over the last decade. If the arrival of foreign workers is inevitable - apart from the humanitarian and Christian considerations to which the pope and many bishops have repeatedly made reference - it will therefore be good to be foresighted. This is why we have tried to make a "secular" argument here. Of course, this does not mean welcoming all those who want to come, or allowing ghettos to be formed within our country. Much less that welcome and tolerance be extended to persons who do not assimilate, who do not observe the civil and criminal laws of the country, or do not want to speak its language. But, if they intend to stay, it is good that they be helped to integrate in the best way possible.

There is certainly the human and social problem of the reduction of the number of children, to which, for example, Prof. Ettore Gotti Tedeschi has alluded many times. This is certainly a component that has profoundly changed the human and productive structure of our society. In the climate of a dispute with the economist, Prof. Giovanni Sartori has denied, a bit too drastically, any correlation between demographic growth and economic growth. There instead seems to exist, partly on the basis of past and current historical experience, a certain consensus among demographers and economists in affirming a correlation between economic growth and constant, but moderate, demographic growth. It is not for nothing that the encyclical "Caritas in Veritate," which is certainly in favor of life, says that "due attention must obviously be given to responsible procreation" (no. 44), meaning not haphazard.

A drastic and unstoppable demographic collapse has always accompanied the periods of decline of the various civilizations. Unless - should a great country be unable to find within itself hope for the future and the conditions that lead to having more children, at least in order to preserve demographic equilibrium - there is a humane, correct openness to the immigration of other peoples, as is happening in Italy in a way that for now is rather contradictory and spontaneous. But this is not a painless solution either, as we have tried to demonstrate, and it demands foresight and courage, which so far in Italy we do not seem to have been able to find.

GianPaolo Salvini
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