Italians' family size and formation are changing

Family is among of the first things that come to mind when many Italians and foreigners think of what it means to be Italian. Scholars, popular writers, and ordinary people have long distinguished a Catholic, Mediterranean family structure from the northern European model, marked not simply by the size of the family, but also by the bonds of the extended family and the permeation of the family into an unusually broad range of social activities.

By all sorts of measures, Italian families are remarkably close. Adult relatives tend to stay in close proximity to one another and to see each other frequently. Young people typically live with their parents into their 30s. The close bond between Italian mothers and sons is a cultural truism. The family meal on Sunday is often regarded as sacrosanct. Family relationships infiltrate business and public life, and even major businesses are often still family owned. Asked what institutions they trust, 97% of Italian Catholics mentioned the family.1

Yet the old image of the large Italian family is at odds with the demographic realities of contemporary Italy. The number of marriages per year in Italy has been declining significantly for decades,2 while the numbers of separations and divorces have increased. Today there is about one divorce annually per four marriages.3 The average age at first wedding is 34 for males and 31 for females, the fourth oldest age in Europe.

Fertility rate declining

Most remarkably, fertility rates have dropped precipitously over the last two generations. At 1.3 children per adult woman in 2013, Italy's fertility rate is one of the lowest in the world, far below the rate necessary to even ensure population stability. The fertility rate for immigrants to Italy is actually double the rate of native Italians’ fertility.4 This has long been a source of public angst and remedial social policies, yet the birthrate remains startlingly low. In 2012, 28% of children were born outside of marriage.

Church weddings are still the norm in Italy, even among families who seldom otherwise attend church, but the rate has been declining. Religious ceremonies comprised about 60% of weddings in 2011, compared to 98.5% in 1970.

A number of legal changes have influenced family life. Divorce was legalized in Italy in 1970. The Church worked to overturn that law by popular referendum in 1974, but almost 60% of voters upheld it. Abortion, made legal by Parliament in 1978, was also upheld by an even larger margin in a 1981 referendum. Same-sex civil unions were approved in Italy in 2016, though these unions are not legally recognized as marriage.

Italians disagree on whether all of this means that marriage is still a socially valued institution. Some authors argue that the increase in cohabitation is primarily a shift in terms of how couples come together to marry, not whether they want to—or will—marry. Cohabitation in Italy seems to be regarded as a precursor to marriage, not a permanent alternative to it, as in many other parts of Europe.5 The vast majority of Italians still do eventually get married. In the 2005 World Values Survey, 18.1% of Italians (including 23.4% of 15-29 year olds) agreed that "marriage is an outdated institution."6 These numbers look better than almost all of Europe, but historically, they represent a marked change for Italy. On the question of same-sex marriage, a 2017 Pew study provides reliable data specifically on Catholic attitudes in Italy: 57% of self-identified Italian Catholics favored allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally, while 41% opposed it.7

Italy vs. Europe

At the moment, Italy is still much more traditional than the rest of Europe. Notably, on almost every demographic measure indicated here, Italy looks far more traditional than Spain and Portugal, the two other Southern European Catholic countries that used to be more socially conservative than most of the rest of Europe. Though the Italian divorce rate has grown significantly, it is still half the rate as many other developed countries, and far less than half that in comparator countries Portugal and Spain.

On the other hand, the steady trajectory toward liberalization shows no sign of bottoming out. While the rate of children born outside of marriage is much lower than in many parts of Europe, it is almost triple the rate reported in 2000, and almost 13 times the rate in 1970.8 And it may be that only elders' pressure, or structural reasons like the affordability of housing for young people, prevents greater levels of cohabitation. Though young Italians may be less likely than other Europeans to cohabitate, the values-shift seems to have taken place already: almost two-thirds of 18-34 year olds agree, "It's all right to live together without being married."9

The decline in the birthrate portends a country with more elderly people than young people to support the retirement needs of the elderly population, and to care for them. Current projections show that even with migration into Italy, the population of the country will shrink. More elderly will likely live alone, and Italian society will likely find it challenging for a smaller number of working age adults to support a larger number of elderly.

Catholics vs. nonreligious

All of the data above refer to Italians in general, rather than to Catholics in particular. The data speak most to the larger cultural context in Italy, though we must also remember that Catholics constitute the great majority of the population. There is clear evidence that those Italians with more strongly held religious beliefs are more traditional in their behavior. In one study, self-identified “not religious” status was the strongest correlating factor with decisions about cohabitation.10  

Another study, conducted in 2000, spoke more clearly about the differences in moral attitudes between 18-34 year old practicing Catholic and non-religious Italians. Among its findings, 77% of the Catholics, and 94% of the nonreligious agreed that it is admissible "to have sex without being married"; 79% of the Catholics, and 96% of the nonreligious agreed that it is admissible "to live together without being married"; 38% of the Catholics, and 69% of the nonreligious agreed that it is admissible "to have homosexual experiences"; 63% of the Catholics, and 89% of the nonreligious agreed that it is admissible to divorce; 32.5% of the Catholics, and 74% of the nonreligious agreed that abortion is "admissible"; 33% of the Catholics, and 63% of the nonreligious agreed that it is admissible "to have an affair with a married person"; 35% of the Catholics, and 69% of the nonreligious agreed that it is admissible "to authorize the death of a parent seriously sick and without hope of recovery." All of those suggest, perhaps not surprisingly, that in Italy, practicing Catholics are more likely than nonbelievers to agree with Church teachings on family life. More interestingly, perhaps, the impact of Catholic teaching—the spread between Catholic and non-religious percentages—was smallest in reference to attitudes toward premarital heterosexual sex and living together. The greatest impact of Catholic identification was (in order) over abortion, euthanasia, extramarital affairs, and homosexuality. Catholics were less likely than non-religious Italians to agree with Church teaching on a different life issue: 29% of 18-34 year old Italian Catholics and 20% of nonreligious in the same survey "agree with the death penalty in the case of very serious crimes." 11  

It would be too simplistic to suggest that the decline in the number of marriages or in number of children per married couple the simply corresponds to an undoing of the traditional bond to the family. The Italian family remains a powerful social institution, even as marriage and birth indicators argue for the weakening of several key traditional family norms. The vertical structure of the family is stronger than in many places in the world, and multigenerational households are more common than single person households. Family unity and cohesion remain strong; what is changing, in order of magnitude, is the size of the family, the process of its formation, and its form. Whether the latter three changes will affect the tight bond of the Italian family remains to be seen.

The permeation of the family into many aspects of society does constitute an ethical stance very different from many other developed parts of the world, and highlights a particular sense of moral obligation. Whereas in some cultures nepotism in the workplace—the expectation of special treatment for family members when it comes to hiring—might be seen as a kind of corruption, in Italy one's failure to try to help one's family that way would be moral shortcoming. The English word nepotism even derives from the Italian word nipoto, nephew, and the tradition of creating positions for them. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Italians’ attachment to family often trumps universalist, Kantian sorts of ethics. One’s first ethical obligation is to one’s family.

Faith formation

A study of changing patterns of godparent roles calculates that in the first part of the 21st century, 85% of Italian parents baptize their children. The study asserts that though godparent choice for the sake of ongoing responsibility for faith formation may never have been a real priority for lay Catholics, since World War II the choice of godparents has shifted from non-kin to kin relationships, especially aunts and uncles, with a particular eye to reinforcing family relationships. Only one-quarter of young adults surveyed indicated that they experienced their godparents' role in terms of religious or moral guidance. 12

Gender roles

Much more deserves to be said about gender roles, but several sources of data suggest that Italy remains fairly traditional on this front. Women's labor force participation rate is at or near the lowest in Europe, depending on the age group.13 Only about 1/3 of Italian men agree that "Men should take the same responsibility [as women] for home and children." 18-34 year old men were more likely to agree, but only 36.3% of them, ranking them fifth from the lowest for that age group among 15 European countries.14 75.8% of Italians surveyed—the highest percentage in Europe—agreed that a pre-school child suffers when a mother works.15

Read more:

Thaís García Pereiro, Roberta Pace, and Maria Grazia Didonna, "Entering First Union: The Choice Between Cohabitation and Marriage Among Women in Italy and Spain," Journal of Population Research 31 (2014):51–70.

Luis Moreno and Pau Marí-Klose, "Youth, Family Change and Welfare Arrangements: Is the South Still So Different?" European Societies 15, no. 4 (2013), 493-513.

Marcantonio Catalbiano, Gianpiero Dalla Zuanna, and Allessandro Rosina, “Interdependence Between Sexual Debut and Church Attendance in Italy,” Demographic Research 14 (2005): 453-484.

  • 1Franco Garelli, Religion, Italian Style: Continuities and Change in a Catholic Country (Surrey, UK and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2014), 89.
  • 2ISTAT (Italian National Institute of Statistics), "Marriage in Italy," November 28, 2012.
  • 3The number of legal separations is consistently even higher. ISTAT (Italian National Institute of Statistics), "Separations and Divorces in Italy," June 23, 2014.
  • 4UNICEF, "State of the World's Children," 2013; Hannah Roberts, "Ciao, Ciao, Bambino," The Tablet, June 7, 2014.
  • 5Thaís García Pereiro, Roberta Pace, and Maria Grazia Didonna, "Entering First Union: The Choice Between Cohabitation and Marriage Among Women in Italy and Spain" Journal of Population Research 31 (2014): 51–70.
  • 6, question v58.
  • 7Jeff Diamant, "How Catholics Around the World See Same-Sex Marriage, Homosexuality," Pew Research Center, November 2, 2020,
  • 8Eurostat, "Marriage and Divorce Statistics," European Commission, May 2014.
  • 9World Values Survey, 2008, cited in Luis Moreno and Pau Marí-Klose, "Youth, Family Change and Welfare Arrangements: Is the South Still so Different?" European Societies, 15, no. 4 (2003): 501.
  • 10García Pereiro, et. al., "Entering First Union,” 56, 66.
  • 11Michele Rostan, “La Religiosità Giovanile” in Quinto Rapporto IARD sulla Condizione Giovanile in Italia (2000), 83-87.
  • 12The 85% baptismal rate is determined by factoring out the births to immigrant parents. Guido Alfani, Vincent Gourdon, Agnese Vitali, “Social Customs and Demographic Change: The Case of Godparenthood in Catholic Europe,” Journal for the Social Scientific Study of Religion 51, no. 3 (2012): 482-504.
  • 13OECD data, cited in Moreno and Marí-Klose, "Youth, Family Change and Welfare Arrangements," 503.
  • 14Three of the others were Mediterranean countries, while the fourth, and indeed lowest at 18.2%, was the Netherlands. Moreno and Marí-Klose, "Youth, Family Change and Welfare Arrangements," 506, citing data from the European Values Survey of 2008.
  • 15Moreno and Marí-Klose, "Youth, Family Change and Welfare Arrangements," 509, citing data from the European Values Survey of 2008.