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Last Updated: Saturday, 2 August, 2003, 23:20 GMT 00:20 UK
Ageing Europe is unprepared

By Stephen Sackur
BBC Europe correspondent

An Italian town
Small towns and villages are shrinking
Seventy-seven-year-old Marietta Cirolla does not have an easy life.

She is desperately lame. Her eyes and ears are beginning to fail her, and worst of all she cannot stop burping.

Like a character invented by that master of magical realism, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Marietta has been struck by an inexplicable condition which makes her an object of wonder and concern to her friends and neighbours.

All her life she has lived in Cersosimo, a tiny village hidden in a fold of the arid hills of Basilicata in the deep south of Italy.

She only left the village once - that was to see a specialist in digestive ailments in Milan.

We've had four babies this year. In the same period we've had 14 funerals
Mayor of Cersosimo

But her condition proved resistant to the intrusions of modern medicine. She returned home uncured; resigned to her compulsive disorder.

Which isn't to say that Marietta keeps herself to herself. Far from it.

When I met her last week she was stationed outside her tiny house at the very top of the village, surrounded by elderly friends.

They sat in mellow companionship, watching the sun descend to the horizon in a blaze of pink and red. Marietta's burping made conversation difficult, nonetheless she was eager to respond to my questions about life in Cersosimo.

Fewer babies

"We need an old people's home here," she insisted. "Somewhere to live where we won't end up being neglected and lonely."

I asked about her children. "They're all gone," she said, gesturing to the distant hills.

Marietta's story is indeed Cersosimo's story. The outline of this ancient village is slowly fading away.

Marilena Venditelli

Two-thirds of the inhabitants are over 65. Improved healthcare and changing lifestyles mean people are living longer, but local women are marrying later and seem increasingly reluctant to have children.

"We've had four babies this year," the mayor told me morosely, "in the same period we've had 14 funerals."

Things are so bad the village school has combined all of its classes to maintain a quorum of pupils.

The mayor is planning to fulfil Marietta's wish, and turn the redundant classrooms into an old people's centre - if he can find the money.

But with the population of the village down from over 1,000 to just 850, his local tax income is going down too.

Financial incentives

And Cersosimo's finances are still reeling from last year's effort to turn back the tide of depopulation.

The mayor decided to offer 2,500 euros to any family having a baby in the village. Even though there were only half a dozen recipients of the handout, it was an experiment that the village cannot afford to repeat.

Besides, there is no evidence that it changed anyone's mind about the merits of procreation.

The fact is, children cost too much
Rafaele Lofiego

Rafaele and Marisa Lofiego, owners of the village bar, the Mullina, received the windfall when they had a baby boy, Vincenzo, 14 months ago.

Did it make them feel any different about having children? "No way," said the burly Rafaele. "The fact is, children cost too much."

Now, Italians are not supposed to say things like that. Certainly not in the South where the tradition of "family" has dominated cultural and economic life for centuries.

Declining population

But the statistics indicate that Rafaele is the authentic voice of his generation. Across Italy the average number of children a woman can expect to bear in her lifetime is now down to 1.2.

Yes Catholic Italy, the fabled land of the "Mama," now has the lowest birth rate in Europe.

Demographers calculate that by 2050 the current population of 56 million could have dwindled to 40 million.

Towns and cities will be left with thousands of unwanted apartments, schools may well be half empty and whole swathes of the countryside could be depopulated.

And, naturally the proportion of old people within the population will continue to rise.

Europe-wide problem

By mid-century there may be one pensioner for every one productive worker in Italy, which begs a simple, devastating question: how on earth is Italy going to maintain its pensions system?

Either the next generation of workers will have to pay unthinkably high levels of tax, or the current, relatively generous benefits will have to be radically scaled back.

What French people think of the pension reforms and strikes

This is not just Italy's problem, it is Europe's problem. Spain, Germany, Austria and Greece all have disturbingly low birth rates.

Britain and France are not in quite such dire straits but when Donald Rumsfeld, the American Defence Secretary, made that jibe about "Old Europe" in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq he was inadvertently exposing a literal truth.

While the muscular superpower across the Atlantic continues to enjoy steady population growth, old man Europe is in danger of becoming a shrivelled shadow of his former self.

When will Europeans wake up to the implications of consistently low birth rates?

Well, in the words of one European professor of population studies, probably not until they are all in their wheelchairs and they suddenly realise there is no one left to push.

Ageing: Europe's growing problem
11 Sep 02  |  Business
Italians fear a poor old age
03 Jun 03  |  Business
Italy's pensions timebomb
20 Dec 02  |  Business
Country profile: Italy
09 Jul 03  |  Country profiles

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