Aging, Steadily Declining Population Worries Italy -- Birth Rate Is Among The Lowest In Europe; Who Will Fill The Jobs?

COPPARO, Italy - When he was a boy racing beyond the pear and peach orchards surrounding this medieval town, Davide Tumiati was an only child, something rare in a northern Italian countryside where large families bulged from the pews of Catholic churches.

As mayor of Copparo today, Tumiati faces the steady decline of his region's population. He attends far more funerals than baptisms. Schools are shuttered, obstetricians are bored, and the government is considering paying couples to have more babies.

Similar patterns are occurring in hundreds of towns and villages as Italy's birth rate has dropped to one of the lowest in the world. The average Italian woman will bear 1.2 children, a statistic alarming to demographers, who wonder how Italy can retain its national character as increasing numbers of immigrants will be needed to strengthen the country's economy in the next century.

The fertility rate, which was 2.7 births per woman in 1964, has been sliding for decades. But today's young Italians are more anxious about the future. They marry later, ignore the Catholic Church's prohibition against birth control, and try to overcome an economy with a 30 percent unemployment rate for people under 30. Cultural changes also have quieted maternity wards as more independent Italian women seek educations and jobs in a historically macho society.

Italy's lagging birth rate is an extreme version of what's happening to European countries struggling to reinvent their fractured politics and fragile businesses to prosper in a world economy. In this equation, babies are viewed as luxuries - or millstones - and the statistical family has fewer than two children.

France's fertility rate is 1.7, Germany's is 1.3, and Spain and Bulgaria share Italy's rate of 1.2, according to the French Institute for the Study of National Demographics. The world's average fertility rate is 3.0; the U.S. rate is 2.0. To prevent deaths from outnumbering births, a minimum birth rate of 2.0 is needed.

"Italians are Catholic, but they don't live the Pope's message of having children," said Giuseppe Gesano, the director of the Institute of Population Research. "All of Europe is facing low fertility. We will have large problems filling jobs, finding government assistance for the elderly and funding pensions. What will we do with school buildings? What about all the pediatricians? We'll have to accentuate jobs that older, not younger, people can do. Computers. Service sector. We'll have to change our whole economic and social structure."

98 births, 254 deaths

Last year, the Copparo region, with a population of 18,766, counted 98 births against 254 deaths. The area's population has fallen by more than 2,000 since 1981, and in each of the past 10 years, deaths have more than doubled births. A near-even trade-off between families leaving and those moving in has kept the population from plummeting further.

"We're studying the possibility of giving incentives to couples to have more children," said Tumiati, the son of a carpenter. "Maybe pay a family 30 million lira ($17,000) for having a third child. What's happening is a perverse phenomenon. We're losing working-age people at the same time we need more taxes to provide for the old. The revenues in my budget have dropped 15 percent in the last three years, while costs to services for old people have risen 20 percent."

The birth-rate conundrum is forcing Italy and the rest of the continent to confront longstanding passions over rising numbers of Middle Eastern, African and Eastern European immigrants.

There are 1.5 million immigrants in Italy's population of 57.3 million. Many demographers say more immigrants are necessary to keep the country's population stable over the next decade, especially in the north, where in some regions the fertility rate is less than one child per woman. In recent weeks, the Italian parliament has been agonizing over new immigration laws and the fate of 10,000 Albanian refugees who fled to Italy early this year, when their country was shattered by civil war.

"If immigrants come, there will be a resistance by Italians," said Tumiati, whose town's unemployment rate is 14 percent. "Copparo had agreed to host two Albanian families. But there was outrage. Citizens accused us of offering the Albanians homes and benefits that Italians could have used. It will be very difficult to convince Italians that immigrants are a good thing."

But with the declining birth rate, immigrants and foreigners will be needed to replenish and eventually expand economies in European countries with fast-growing elderly populations. The working-age population of the 15 countries in the European Union is estimated at 200 million, according to the Institute of Population Research. By 2020, that work force will shrink to 160 million. At the same time, the working-age populations in the Middle East, North Africa and the southern Mediterranean will swell from 110 million to 190 million.

"In 25 years, 3 to 4 million Italian jobs will be empty, and this deficit will have to be filled by immigrants," Massimo Livi Bacci, a demographer at the University of Florence, said recently. "Whether we like it or not, we're going to have to get used to a more intense immigrant flux."

Having abortions

The brochures posted near the doors of SS. Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Copparo are clear: "Maybe abortion is not the only solution" and "Five good reasons to choose the natural method for fertility." Inside the rectory, the Rev. Luigi Valerio said many in his parish aren't listening. There are 60 abortions a year in Copparo, he said, adding that fewer and fewer young adults walk the aisles for communion.

"There are very few young people in the pews," he said. "Only 5 percent of our young people come to Mass, and only 12 percent of our adults. People here are born Catholic, but I feel they are not practicing Catholics. The immigrants will come. There will be marriages of different faiths and different cultures."

Farther down Via Garibaldi, a swing was creaking in the afternoon shade as Enrica Berti rocked her baby son, Aurelio. "I think maybe the children will come back," said Berti, who, with her boyfriend, works in a milk-and-yogurt factory and earns $1,100 a month. "I have seen many big stomachs lately. When I was pregnant, my doctor said, `Oh, good, at least another child for Copparo.'

"The Pope is right, we should have more children. But we should also have more and better jobs. People don't feel like making sacrifices so much anymore."

While Berti swayed, Elaria Orsi, a 19-year-old high-school dropout, gazed at all the white hair and wrinkled faces that passed her bench. "This will become an old country with an old mentality," she said. "It will get worse. We'll fall behind the rest of Europe."

When asked what kind of job she would like to have, Orsi smiled and bowed her head.

"A baby-sitter," she said. "But look around you."