(Bloomberg Business) — Last week, Italy got some dire news: A mere 509,000 babies were born in 2014, which was 5,000 fewer than in 2013. It marked the fewest births in the country’s century-and-a-half history as a unified nation.
After the figures were released, Health Minister Beatrice Lorenzin said it best. “A country without births is a country that is dead,” she said Feb. 12 during a visit to a Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. plant.
See also: Five myths about the falling U.S. birth rate.
This means more trouble for an economy that’s been in a funk for as long as anyone can remember. Thanks in part to their Mediterranean diet, Italians live past 80. Without children to grow up and pay for the health care and pensions of their aging parents and grandparents, the debt-addled government is stuck with a mounting bill. And collecting enough revenue to meet these obligations (think tax increases) is especially tricky in already-flailing economies.
A low fertility rate — Italy’s was 1.39 children per woman last year, on par with Japan’s and below the U.S.’s 1.9 — and an aging society also eventually shrinks the workforce, consisting of people who make things and buy things to make the economy grow. And that drives down inflation, research has shown. Japan is the poster child for that phenomenon. The threat of tumbling prices prompted the European Central Bank to unveil historic measures last month in the form of a 1.1 trillion-euro ($1.25 trillion) cash infusion.
Italy isn’t alone in grappling with the consequences of all of this. Some 18 percent of the French are older than 65, up from 13.8 percent in 1990, estimates compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau show. Spain’s ratio is 17.6 percent and Greece’s is 20.2 percent. Italy’s 21 percent of seniors is only surpassed by Germany (21.1 percent) and Japan (25.8 percent).
No wonder Pope Francis is now telling people to stop being so “selfish” and get to it. It was a curious change of tune from his message only weeks ago, when he chided Catholics for breeding like rabbits.