ROME — Cinzia Zago, the young mother of a 10-month-old baby, waited five years before having a child. She is not sure she wants a second one.
"I work full time," she says, "and having a child is very, very complicated." Ms. Zago, who sells baby clothes in the city of Treviso in northern Italy, is what Italian and European demographers call a "standard mother," in other words a woman of fertile age with no intention of having more than one, maybe two children.
Zago's experience points to a staggering phenomenon: With many more Italians not having children, Italy now has the world's lowest fertility rate.
That fact occupies much of the work of Antonio Golini, who documents the decline of the native Italian population from his office at the Institute for Population Research in Rome. He is one of Europe's top demographers and, to many, a prophet of doom.
"An exercise in pure statistics would show that at the present rate of 1.17 children per couple, Italians will be extinct within the next 200 years," he says.
Immigration, he adds, is what will keep this country of 58 million people alive and kicking well into the next millennium. The problem is, the kicking will get feebler and feebler: "Italy was the first country in the world to experience what is known as 'the crossing-over,' where the number of people who are over 60 exceeds the number of those who are under 20," Mr. Golini notes.
The peculiarity of Italy's cross-over, he points out, is that it is virtually irreversible. According to demographic forecasts, it is highly unlikely that the number of people under 20 will ever again exceed the number of people over 60 after such a crossing over. "Unless each fertile woman starts having 10 children now, there is nothing we can do," he adds.
In economic terms, not to mention human ones, this is a point of some concern.
"Let me explain," says Golini, shuffling through a mountain of papers and pulling out a recent United Nations graph. "The United States will experience its crossing-over, too, in the year 2035. But the US population, which has a fertility rate of around 2.1, is aging at half the rate of Italy."
In other words, in 2050 the average age of Italy's workers will be close to 70. The US, with a lower average working age, will be able to maintain a high level of productivity.
"Inevitably, we will experience a complete collapse of the pension system as Italy's work force struggles desperately to keep up with countries like India, which in 2050 will have a 20-something population of 156.3 million," he explains.
With a future like this in store, Italians can only wonder what happened in the past and attempt to answer what Golini calls "the million-dollar question": Why does Italy, of all countries in the world, have the lowest fertility rate?
"Italy's policy for families is a complete and utter disaster," says Carla Collicelli, deputy director of the CENSIS, the Rome-based Research Center for Social Investment. "All of Europe is experiencing a sharp decline in birth rate. But other countries, such as Germany and France, have done something about it, providing tax breaks and state-subsidized child care" to encourage families to have more children.
In Germany, for instance - where, according to statistics compiled by Eurostat in Brussels, the fertility rate in 1995 was estimated at 1.24 - the government has implemented a highly successful program called "Tages-mutter," meaning "mother by day." The program allows two or three working mothers to leave their children together with a nanny of their choice, essentially paid for by the state.
France,which had a fertility rate of 1.7 in 1995, has a similar program, and Sweden, with a fertility rate 1.74 in 1995, has expanded its system of child-care centers, explains Ms. Collicelli. Croatia has recently allowed mothers who have a second or third child to take almost a year off from work by subsidizing them, she adds.
By contrast, Italy has not developed programs that are promotive of starting a family and raising children in the modern world. "In Italy, there are no tax breaks, no child-care system, no nothing," says Collicelli.
What Italy does have, she points out, is a "highly envied" maternity leave of five months.
"But what happens after that? Elementary schools throw children out on the street at 1:00 p.m. A working mother can't just get up from her desk and go take care of her child."
Italy's current government is highly critical of the past and admits with uncharacteristic honesty that whatever incentive it provides in coming months or years may be too little, too late.
"Nothing has been done and little will done in the future," says Franca Fossato, spokeswoman for the Ministry of Social Affairs, which now deals with family policy. "We are working on bill that would allow working mothers to hold part-time jobs but what we need is a complete restructuring of the system."
With Italy's budget subjected to the stringent economic criteria needed to join the European Monetary Union in 1999, whatever incentive the government provides in the coming years may amount to the proverbial drop in the bucket.
Golini believes the government's apathy is the fault of Italy's politics. "To understand demography's messages you must be able to project over a period of 100 years, and for a politician this is a tragically long period," he says. "If you're Bill Clinton in the United States, the most you can hope for is eight years in power. You can imagine what it's like in Italy where we change governments every six months."
Italy's politicians, he says, can hardly claim ignorance of the problem: They have been briefed by demographers for over 20 years.
"Back in 1975," recalls Golini, "I got a call from the managing director of Plasmon," Italy's largest baby-food producer. "He asked me if anything could be done to keep them from going out of business. At the time I was not aware of the gravity of the problem. After looking into it, I went straight to the government. You can see what good that did. Plasmon, on the other hand, got the message loud and clear. In the early '80s, they started making dietetic products."
But there are other considerations to make. Says Golini: "Try going to a young couple and telling them they must save Italy's pension system. They'll probably answer: 'Why does it have to be my child?' It's very hard to have private interests coincide with public ones."
"It's too expensive," says Barbara Zanetti in Rome when asked why, after six years of marriage, she has not had a child. A recent study by the National Institute of Statistics (ISTAT) shows that, on average, a child's basic care costs $370 a month. This is after the inevitable purchase of a wide range of baby accessories that cost considerably more in Italy than in the US. The average price of a stroller is $365. And ISTAT's basic-care estimate does not include the average $1,000 a month many working mothers spend for a baby-sitter.
"Even during pregnancy, the state does absolutely nothing for you," says Monica Scarpa, managing director of a large clothing manufacturer in Treviso and a mother of two. "Because of the bureaucracy, I needed three different doctors to approve whatever contributions I was to get from the government. I lost an average of four working days a month going from one office to the other."
Fashion-conscious Italians, experts point out, do spend considerably more than the world average on clothes and consumer goods, such as cellular phones. However, the total wealth of a country, although demographically significant, is not a determining factor in the fertility rate.
The south of Italy is a good example. With an unemployment rate reaching 27 percent - compared to 7 percent in the north - and less wealth to go around, southern Italians are still having children. In Sicily, the fertility rate in 1992 was 1.9 compared to 0.97 in Liguria, the region in the north with the lowest rate.
"Money is important for a different reason," says Enrico Fedele, a doctor who works in Bologna, a city also down at the bottom of the fertility chart. "Money brings selfishness and, most importantly, the capacity to choose distractions. I see so many of young patients without children and when I ask them why, they tell me it's because they don't have the money. The truth is they have all the money it takes, but they've become more selfish."