Empty playgrounds in an aging Italy

GENOA: There are hundreds of stores in the Fiumara Mall - Sephora, Elan, Lavazza Café. But in a nation long known for its hordes of children, there is not one toy store in the sprawling mix, and a shiny merry-go-round stands dormant.

"This is a place for old people," said Francesco Lotti, 24, strolling with his fiancée in Genoa's medieval old town. "Just look around. You don't see young people." Even for people their age, "there are not many places - no clubs, for example." Playgrounds? He looks quizzically at his fiancée. They can count them on a few fingers.

While all of Europe has suffered from declining birthrates, nowhere has the drop been as profound and prolonged as in this once gorgeous Mediterranean city, the capital of Italy's graying Liguria region. Genoa provides a vision of Europe's aging future, displaying the challenges that face a society with more old than young, and suggesting how hard it will be to reverse the downward population spiral.

There are no longer children playing in the streets here, nor many family- friendly restaurants. Schools have closed for lack of students. Hospitals are overworked with the elderly. Medical costs are bankrupting the government. And the fewer the children in a society, the harder it becomes to have them.

"This is a society that was based on family ties and now there are few families," said Daniela Del Boca, a professor of economics at the University of Turin. "It's easy to bemoan low birthrates, but it's hard to have good ideas to solve the problem."


Genovese today have only one child or none and are unapologetic about the choice. The birthrate (7.7 births per 1,000 people) was about half the death rate (13.7 per 1,000) in Liguria last year, a frightening ratio even by European standards.

Government efforts to reverse the trend are not working. Cash payments for births, for example, have failed to inspire a leap in fertility rates, and immigration, which might help counteract the population decline, is generating new problems.

Here, as in much of Europe, immigrants are having more children than others and they have kept Genoa's population from imploding. But many Genovese are beginning to feel that the city is no longer theirs: 50 percent of the students in many schools in the old city are of foreign parentage, a situation that is producing simmering resentment.

"Yes, immigrants make up the difference, but in some ways it's not fair," said Silvia Baghino, whose two children were playing in an empty playground. "They get free services like nurseries and we have to pay privately."

In the two countries in Europe with the highest birthrates, France and Britain, about 20 percent of babies have at least one foreign-born parent.

Prime Minister Romano Prodi's new government has created a Ministry of Family to address the birth problem, but it is acknowledged that it will be an uphill battle.

"Maybe we should have confronted this problem 30 years ago, but we didn't and so we know the policies that we put into place have to be powerful," said Rosi Bindi, the new minister. "There has to be an immediate inversion of tendencies."

Low birthrates in Italy began almost three decades ago, around the time women's liberation took off here, and locals scoff at the idea that they will bounce back in any significant way.

The figures are startling: A quarter of women in Italy now have no children and another quarter stop at one, Del Boca said.

The problem is particularly severe here in Liguria, a region of fading elegance along Italy's northwest coast that has failed to attract enough young people despite the beautiful sea.Twenty years ago, for every 100 people under the age of 15, Liguria had 70 over 65. Today, for every 100 people under 15, it has 240 over 65, an index that is "the highest in the world," according to Massimiliano Costa, the region's vice governor.

"In the parks, there are more old people than kids playing," Costa said. "On the buses there are more old people than kids coming back from school. It is very visible."

For the people of Genoa, a port city in an economically depressed country, children are no longer thought of as a blessing but as an economic liability.

"Kids are not important - the priority has to be to have a steady job and make a living, to give yourself some security," said Nazarena Lanza, 27. None of her friends has had a child, she said.

Many young Italians work on temporary contracts without benefits, making it unthinkable to take time off for babies; it is a work arrangement the Prodi government has vowed to change. But after so many years, childlessness has become socially acceptable here, even the norm among well-educated women.


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