ROME (REUTERS/AFP) - Fewer babies were born in Italy in 2014 than in any other year since the modern Italian state was formed in 1861, new data shows, highlighting the demographic challenge faced by the country's chronically sluggish economy.
National statistics office ISTAT said on Thursday the number of live births last year was 509,000, or 5,000 fewer than in 2013, rounding off half a century of decline, and prompting government warnings that the country is "dying".
"We are very close to the threshold of non-renewal where the people dying are not replaced by new-borns. That means we are a
dying country," Health Minister Beatrice Lorenzin said.
The number of babies born to both natives and foreigners living in Italy dropped as immigration, which used to support the overall birth rate, tumbled to its lowest level for five years.
The mortality rate also declined last year, stretching life expectancy for Italian men to 80.2 years, and to 84.9 years for women.
The number of deaths registered in Italy last year was 597,000 and a net 65,000 Italian citizens left the country.
Only a positive balance of immigration (+207,000) enabled the population to expand marginally (0.04 per cent to 60.8 million.)
Italy has one of the lowest birth rates in Europe at 1.39 children per woman.
Developed countries the world over are counting the costs of an ageing population, such as rising pension payouts and health-care costs, but Italy, mired in its third recession in six years, is particularly vulnerable.
The government of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is scrambling to give the economy a boost by reforming the sclerotic labour market and persuading the country's youth not to migrate and work abroad.
The demographic picture varies wildly between Italy's regions, with the autonomous northern area of Trentino-Alto Adige enjoying a total fertility rate of 1.65, higher than euro zone peer Germany.
But the population is shrinking in most of the poorer south, where per-capita gross domestic product is about half that in the centre and north.
"This situation has enormous implications for every sector: the economy, society, health, pensions, just to give a few examples," Lorenzin said.
"We need a wake-up call and a real change of culture to turn the trend around in the coming years," added the minister.
Lorenzin is doing her bit personally - the 43-year-old is due to have twins in June.