Atreiu’s Dream and the Demographic Crisis

Why do societies age, lose the desire to have children, and begin to decline?

Column by Francesco Grillo for the Italian newspaper Il Messaggero.


Demographers and most of the more industrialized states (including China at this point) are desperately trying to reverse a trend that is starting to appear inevitable. However, it's Atreyu, the hero - a young boy and protagonist of one of the most famous films and books from the 1980s - who, in "The Never-Ending Story," offers an explanation for a phenomenon that economists struggle to interpret. Before the final showdown with a gigantic wolf tasked with eliminating him, the monster reveals to him that it's the growing inability of people to conceive dreams that is crumbling his world (in the film, it's referred to as "Fantasia").

It's the absence of goals capable of giving meaning to the future that is causing everything to slide into nothingness. A lack of plans serving a power that can only be halted by a new dream.

The demographic statistics not only show the most devastating numbers of decline in a country like Italy, but also prove how economists' semantics are becoming increasingly less effective in governing the issues that are defining the twenty-first century. Twenty years ago, Italy recorded half a million births and an equal number of deaths; after a quarter of a century, births have fallen below four hundred thousand units, while deaths have risen to seven hundred thousand. The civil registry data certify, better than GDP figures - which we spasmodically comment on every three months - one of those mutations that historians call "long-term". The "Italians living in Italy" are gradually disappearing.

The concern about the emptying cradles is an ancient one, and yet nothing reverses the trend. Over time, it has become more convenient for mothers to take maternity leave (as made possible by the latest Budget Law); fathers are also encouraged to take on childcare responsibilities (and to claim the right to do so). Bonuses are granted for child products and tax deductions. The National Recovery and Resilience Plan (PNRR) includes substantial investments in nurseries, which the latest budget pays for those who already have a child. Some even suggest using the expansion of certain "rights" as a lever at no cost (for example, the right to adopt). Finally, everyone seems to now acknowledge that we need more regulated and targeted migration.

The results show that these measures are not futile: according to Eurostat, Italy, Spain, and Malta are both the countries that spend the least on family policies and those with the lowest birth rates. Some measures are more effective than others (one euro spent on nurseries and schools is worth more than a discount on diapers).



Yet, the country that performs best in Europe - France, which records 1.84 births per woman - is still far from the rate (2.1) at which the population decreases. The great difficulty in revitalizing societies that seem to be emptying (entire countries but also individual villages) persists and suggests that there is something economists cannot see. Something that public funds (however scarce) cannot buy.

This is demonstrated by the relationship between per capita income and birth rates, both in the comparison between different countries and for the same country in different moments of its history. In Africa, the number of births per woman continues to be higher than in Europe (although it is decreasing), even though Europe is, of course, wealthier. In post-war Italy, more children were born, even though today we struggle to imagine a world like that, living without a washing machine and refrigerator.


We are disappearing not only because we no longer invest in family policies, but also because we no longer have - just as Atreyu's enemy suggested - a dream. Individual, like the Italians who grew up waiting for the 1960 Olympics. Or collective, like the one that unites Israelis committed to their own survival (and yet paradoxically, even Gaza has one of the highest birth rates in the world). We would need a purpose capable of giving us meaning. It is difficult to find such purpose in a context where phones seem to have even extinguished the desire to travel to reach worlds of which we instantly see a digital surrogate.

The idea of what we wrongly call "energy transition" could succeed. Imagining overturning the way we produce, distribute, and consume energy to "save the world" from our own mistakes could be a collective purpose. However, we have so far conceived this transformation as a boring decree imposed from above. One idea might be to start again from study and sports. From the social commitment that could even turn into compulsory civil service conceived truly as an opportunity to become more resilient in the face of crises we risk losing control of.

Certainly, we should regain the courage that drives Atreyu to risk everything – even his own life - to save a dream. But also, the reason that tells us that without dreams, we are already dead.

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