‘Demographic winter’: Pope Francis urges Italy’s government to help families

Pope Francis on Friday called for Italy's politicians to find solutions to reverse the plunging birthrate, saying young people struggle to start families in today's "savage" economic climate.

'Demographic winter': Pope Francis urges Italy’s government to help families
Pope Francis blesses a baby at the Vatican. Francis on Thursday urged Italy's politicians to do more to help young Italians who can't afford to start a family. (Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP)

he 86-year-old pontiff opened the second day of a Rome conference involving politicians, business and social leaders focused on the steeply declining birthrate in Italy – a figure that experts warn will lead to the impoverishment of the country.

For the first time, last year Italy’s births fell below the threshold of 400,000, at 393,000, according to national statistics institute Istat.

That compared to 713,499 deaths, in a population of around 58 million.

READ ALSO: The real reasons young Italians aren’t having kids

Francis, who received a standing ovation as he appeared onstage to address the conference alongside Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, said that young people today “live in a social climate in which starting a family is turning into a Titanic effort”.

He cited the difficulty of trying to plan for the future amid low salaries and high rents in Italy, where the population is ageing and where many young people struggle to find stable full-time jobs.

“The free market, without the necessary corrective measures, becomes savage and produces increasingly serious situations and inequalities,” he said.

He acknowledged the “almost insurmountable constraints” on young women who are effectively forced to choose between a career and motherhood.

Given the high cost of raising children, people were revising their priorities, he added.

“We cannot passively accept that so many young people struggle to realise their family dream and are forced to lower the bar, settling for mediocre substitutes: making money, aiming for a career, travelling, jealously guarding leisure time,” he said.

“We need to prepare fertile ground for a new spring to blossom and leave this demographic winter behind us,” Francis said, calling for “forward-looking policies” to avoid Italy “(degenerating) into sadness”.

“Reviving the birthrate means repairing the forms of social exclusion that are affecting young people and their future,” he added.

“Have you ever imagined a world without babies?” was the provocative question used in publicity for the conference, organised by the Birthrate Foundation, a group with links to Catholic associations that advocate for families.

Despite the religious ties, conference speakers mostly steered clear of some of controversial issues related to Italy’s declining population, such as abortion, surrogacy and migration.

Speakers concentrated primarily on discussing possible solutions including welfare, more childcare and tax relief.

Still, Agriculture Minister Francesco Lollobrigida, a key figure in Meloni’s far-right, nationalist Brothers of Italy party, took the opportunity on Thursday to say that the birthrate issue was of concern “because we want to safeguard the culture, languages of Italy”

READ ALSO: 11 statistics that show the state of gender equality in Italy

Meloni, who won the largest share of the women’s vote in September elections but does not consider herself a feminist, has made mothers and families a central part of her discourse.

Her government has not however introduced any concrete policies aimed at addressing the issues faced by young people and families in Italy which experts say are closely tied to the plunging birth rate.

Italy’s population was on the rise until 2014, when it began reversing.

On Thursday, Economy Minister Giancarlo Giorgetti warned that by 2042, Italy’s declining birthrate would end up reducing its gross domestic product (GDP) by 18 percent.

“I think that it should be strongly reiterated that the economic system is closely correlated to births,” Giorgetti said.

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Italy’s ex-president Giorgio Napolitano dies aged 98

Giorgio Napolitano, the first person to be elected as president of Italy twice, has died at the age of 98, the presidential palace has confirmed.

Italy's ex-president Giorgio Napolitano dies aged 98

Official sources confirmed on Friday night that former president and communist, Napolitano, has died in Rome after weeks in hospital.

Undersecretary of State Alfredo Mantovano has ordered a state funeral on Tuesday, which will be accompanied by a national day of mourning, according to Italian news agency Ansa.

In office between 2006 and 2015, Napolitano was considered a stalwart of stability during a particularly turbulent period in Italy – from the truncated premiership of Romano Prodi to the curtailed mandates of Silvio Berlusconi, Mario Monti and Enrico Letta.

The country also experienced its gravest economic recession since the post-war period.

In 2013, Napolitano agreed to serve an unprecedented second term amid a fierce political deadlock, but resigned two years later because of his advancing age, opening up the post to Sergio Mattarella.

Italy’s current president, Mattarella, wrote, “I am deeply saddened by his death” and “I extend to his family the condolences of the entire nation”.

“In Giorgio Napolitano’s life, is mirrored a large part of the history of the second half of the 20th century, with its dramas, its complexity, its goals and its hopes,” he added.

Italian President Sergio Mattarella

Italian president Sergio Mattarella began formal consultations to form a new government on Thursday. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP

Former Italian prime minister, Mario Draghi, described Napolitano as “an absolute protagonist of Italian and European history over the last seventy years”.

At the opposite end of the political spectrum, Italy’s currently serving far-right prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, expressed her condolences on behalf of the government.

Born in Naples on June 29th, 1925 into a family of intellectuals, Napolitano took part in the resistance against Nazi and fascist troops during World War II, founding a communist group.

At the end of the war, he joined the Italian Communist Party and was elected to parliament in 1953 after earning a law degree.

Napolitano was one of the most influential leaders of the party’s reformist wing, although he notoriously supported the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary in 1956 to crush a liberal revolution.

With the collapse of the USSR, the Italian Communist Party was officially disbanded in 1991.

After turns as lower house speaker, interior minister and leftwing MEP, he became Italy’s first ex-communist to be elected president in 2006.

The veteran held the rare quality of being respected by both right and left and an ability to stay above the party political fray.

He is survived by his wife, Clio, whom he married in 1959, and his two sons Giovanni and Giulio.