The Coming Demographic Winter

Tourism, as anyone with a passport can tell you, has become a very big business, particularly in places that no longer thrive in the customary practices of industry and commerce.  Take Genoa, for instance, one of Europe’s largest cities along the Mediterranean coast and still the grandest seaport in all Italy, whose bright and shiny brochures advertise an array of attractions from castles to cuisine, beaches to basilicas.  There is even a museum or two containing works by such great Flemish masters as Rubens and van Dijk.  Then, having slaked one’s appetite for art, one can always wander through the alleyways of the ancient city in search of the birthplace of Christopher Columbus, who long ago left Genoa to go in search of a New World.

I did a quick Google search and, instantly, no fewer than 278 fun things to do in Genoa popped up.  And while I do not propose to walk the reader through the list in order to verify its accuracy, I will tell you that there is at least one fun thing that hasn’t been done for a very long time in Genoa.   And that is to hear the laughter of little children, whose disappearance from the streets and courtyards of this once flourishing city is the real untold story behind all the tourism hype.

So where have they all gone?   That shouldn’t be too hard to puzzle out.  The fact is, as a direct result of too many couples deciding not to have children—or at most only one—they have never been conceived.   The Genovese, by the way, appear to be not the least bit sheepish about the matter, their refusal to welcome new life the obvious outcome of a mindset that emphasizes pleasure at the expense of progeny.  “In Italy,” as one observer wryly put it, “they don’t have children.  They have dogs and cats.”

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The government, meanwhile, has worked itself up into a great lather over falling birthrates, even going so far as to propose that couples amendable to having kids be financially compensated for their efforts to enlarge the population pool.  So far, however, the campaign to stoke the furnace of fertility has proven to be something of a bust.  “They say, ‘Make babies; it’s our future,’ but how can you really?” asked Marco Ranucci, who owns and operates a small café, where he puts in ten hours a day, complaining that the current “baby bonus” per child is less than the cost of a year’s supply of baby formula.

Do the women of Genoa not have breasts?  Or are they too busy baring them on the beaches to remember exactly what they are for?  How on earth did our ancestors ever survive without government subsidies for baby formula?

Of course we Americans are hardly in a position to boast since our own fertility rates are far from bullish.  Indeed, the birthrate over here has plummeted to the lowest levels in U.S. history, rivaling even the most dismal days of the Great Depression.  From 2007 to 2011, which is the period where the latest hard data exists, the fertility rate fell by 9 percent.  Another way of putting it is to compare the rates of maternity-free American women from the 1970s, which was 1 in 10, with those of today, which are twice that number, which is to say, 1 in 5.   And while the change is perhaps not yet as catastrophic as in Italy, where nearly one-fourth of childbearing women will never give birth, it is nevertheless a pretty dramatic and disturbing trend.  Across the Western world, in other words, a looming demographic winter is taking shape.

Not that there aren’t babies being born in the West, only that more and more they tend to be the offspring of immigrant women, whose openness to new life stands in striking contrast to the ennui that characterizes the resolutely childless.  And who are these immigrant women whose children more and more provide the numbers that keep the life force going?  Would it surprise you to know that many of them are Muslim?  And that the fertility missiles leaving the launching pad are fueled largely by faith?  The English philosopher Roger Scruton, in a moving piece from his book Gentle Regrets, puts it in chilling terms:  “The Muslims in our midst,” he writes,  “do not share our impious attitude to absent generations.  They come to us from the demographic infernos of North Africa and Pakistan, like Aeneas from the burning ruins of Troy, each with an old man on his shoulders, a child at his feet, and his hands full of strange gods.  They are manifestly in the business of social, as well as biological, reproduction.  They show us what we really stand to lose, if we hold nothing sacred: namely, the future.”

And to whom, finally, does the future belong?  It belongs to those who show up, which is to say, to the fertile.  Provided, that is, they remain tethered to life, to fruitfulness.  What happens to a society prescinded from that procreative urge, a society in which the full meaning of eros has been either thwarted or trivialized, is a kind of suicide.  That men and women will no longer do what the animals do without having to think about doing it?  What else can that be but an invitation to extinction.  A state of entropy entirely self-inflicted, too.  In an op-ed piece that appeared December 2012 in the New York Times, columnist Ross Douthat makes the point that society’s “retreat from child rearing is, at some level, a symptom of late-modern exhaustion,” a condition of “decadence,” he calls it, evoking “ a spirit that privileges the present over the future.”

Call it what you like, it certainly portends doom for the civilization in which, for those of us lucky enough to be born and bred in it, would rather prefer not to see destroyed.  It took Gibbon six volumes to set down the rise and fall of the Roman Empire.  A civilization incapable of even reproducing itself hardly needs that many, and probably doesn’t deserve any.


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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