Dooms loom, and the band plays on – I

Italians and Frenchpeople are now on the endangered-species list. How come no on in Italy or France seems to care?

It’s difficult, or perhaps it’s too easy, to find a metaphor for three nightmares of which I have been watching (two from up close) over the last two weeks, and it’s almost as hard to characterize watching while the participants have coffee and pay no attention. Seeing a good friend descend slowly into a debilitating, probably fatal addiction to drugs or suicidal behavior? Watching a town go about its business as the dam up the valley develops cracks and leaks? Wile E. Coyote heading off the cliff with grim determination?

The last one is no good, at least for my first scenario, because the coyote doesn’t know about the cliff until his feet are flailing in the air. In contrast, the demographic suicide of western Europe is not only amply documented but obvious on the street: it’s a world of grownups and most of them will soon be old. I live in a college town and my perception may be distorted by my own day-to-day experience being out and about, but outside student districts, Berkeley has children on the scene, on my street half a dozen in a stretch of a half-dozen houses. Milan, however, is a city of twenties and thirties, almost all single and childless, and their parents. In any case, all the few people who could have children in the next fifteen-plus years are already born and accounted for; demography is a science of long horizons and very early warning. The only thing I’ve ever seen to compare with this baby and child vacuum is the city of San Francisco, rapidly becoming a child-free zone with closing schools and empty playgrounds.

Among ten Italian and French friends of child-bearing age, I count six kids and might see another three, though that would imply three spouses added to the group (the least fertile European countries, like Italy, Germany, and Portugal are having between 1.2 and 1.4 children per woman; the replacement rate is about 2.1). But what matters are the real statistics, not casual observation, which might miss children in school or in the suburbs: fertility rates in Europe are at levels never observed in countries not at war or the grip of psychotic dictatorships. Even in France, which has had aggressive pro-natalist policies in place since the thirties, the population pyramid has very broad shoulders and fashionably slim legs.

The explanations are various, all probably with some merit. I’m told, informally, that professional, educated young women are waiting (for a decade) for their male peers to wake up to the responsibilities of men in a two-career family, or just to start acting like grownups. Working and lower-middle-class young people, on the other hand, plus a lot of graduates with prestigious degrees that don’t match the market, are so insecure financially that they don’t dare take on the responsibilities of parenthood. This Herald Tribune story has been noticed and commented on in rather sheepishly in local newspapers.

It may be that we’re seeing a one-time delay of first child-bearing, but it’s not going away and in any case, a woman who has her first child at thirty usually does not have another.

The phenomenon is creepy, but what’s like a science fiction movie about zombies is the pervasive lack of concern. Good studies are commissioned and filed away, governments have started some tentative child-subsidy tax programs, especially generous in France, but there’s no conversation about it, nothing in the newspapers, an election in a week in Italy and I can’t find a word about this impending catastrophe from a candidate in the newspapers or on TV. The current administration seems to have spent its entire term in office keeping the prime minister out of jail, not attending to this (or anything else, as far as I can tell).

What could possibly be more important to Italy than the looming extinction of Italians? And even if the society had decided it’s time to roll up the enterprise and pass the peninsula to someone else, or just turn out the lights and close the door, what do the twenties and thirties of today expect to have for dinner when they’re old, having paid taxes to support their (more numerous) parents most of their working lives? Why is everyone acting as if this isn’t happening??!!

As an italophile on many dimensions, sitting in a comfortable train [this is shorthand for a competent system of public services that provide a high quality of life] between Rome and Milan where life is very good in so many ways, in the land of Giotto, da Vinci, Fermi [supply your own pages of really smart Italians who think outside the box], I find myself suppressing a tendency to grab people at random by the collar and yell at them, “forse queste cose non mi riguardono, ma siete pazzi, voi? ciecchi?” (si, amici miei, questo è per voi) [maybe this is none of my business, but are you people nuts? blind?]

Which brings me to my next two slow nightmares, the unspeakable waste of human resources and the spectacular revolt of youth against reality in France, and global warming, to which I will turn in future posts. I’ll be in Paris tomorrow and may be able to make more sense of what I’ve been reading. Or I’ll be schlepping across the city in a transport strike, between marches and protests…

Author: Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl, a political theorist, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England, both from Princeton University Press. His research interests include political ethics, liberal and democratic theory, toleration, the work of David Hume, and the realist school of contemporary political thought. He is currently finishing a book for Harvard University Press titled The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration. He divides his time between Toronto and Brooklyn.

One thought on “Dooms loom, and the band plays on – I”

  1. Time to stage an intervention?

    Michael O'Hare contemplates Europe's demographic decline: It's difficult, or perhaps it's too easy, to find a metaphor for three nightmares of which I have been watching (two from up close) over the last two weeks, and it's almost as hard to characteri…

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