Demography: Germany’s baby blues

A newborn at a maternity ward in Brandenburg, Germany.
A newborn at a maternity ward in Brandenburg, Germany.
4 December 2012 – Libération (Paris)

Germany's birth rate has been declining for years. Costly programmes to encourage women to have children are in place but their haphazard implementation contributes to a failure to reverse the trend.

Forty and fifty year old women without children are a group closely followed by demographers.

Twenty per cent of West German women born between 1960 and 1964, are childless while 22 per cent have only one child. The probability of being without children increases significantly the more a woman is educated. "A quarter of women with a higher education degree have no children, while for women with no more than a secondary school education the percentage is only 15 per cent," sums up Christian Schmidt a researcher at the DIW Institute of Economic Research in Berlin.

This phenomenon is causing concern among the powerbrokers of Berlin given the current context of rigor and reduced public spending. It is the most affluent women who are not having children while the number of children living in poor households, those that depend on benefits, for its part, continues to increase. The German press takes regular pot shots at DINKs (double income, no kids) households accusing them of being hedonistic and self-centred. The truth is often quite different.

In an article in the women's magazine, Brigitte, under the headline "Too old to have a child?" journalist Sabine Reichel describes the changes she has gone through as a woman without children: convinced feminist at 30, a proponent of freedom at 40, bereaved at 50. "We should never give up something as essential as a child for so-called reasonable reasons," she says.

Lowest birth rate in the world

"The magnitude of the phenomenon of childless women between the ages of 40 to 50 is the decisive factor in explaining the low birth rate in Germany," says a report published this year by the Federal Statistical Office. The country's birth rate is only eight births per 1,000 inhabitants, the lowest birth rate in the world. In 2011, a new record was set with only 663,000 births, 15,000 fewer than in 2010. As it has been since 1992, the 2011 balance between births and deaths was negative with 852,000 deaths [for 663,000 births]. The population level is maintained thanks to immigration. In the long term, Germany's population should shrink to 65 or 70 million from 81.5 million last year.

"And the number of births will continue to diminish simply because the number of women of child-bearing age is declining," explains Steffen Kröhnert, researcher at the Berlin Institute for Population and Development. "Even if the number of children per woman is slightly higher than in 2010, up to 1.4 children from 1.39 before," he adds.

This subtle hike in the fertility rate is, for the moment, the only positive effect of the costly family policies put in place haphazardly after the Helmut Kohl era, at the end of the 1990s, to replace the programmes in place during the Cold War.

In West Germany, the "bourgeois" model was prevalent, keeping women confined to the home. There was no daycare for infants, and school was part-time for the older children. Topping everything off, taxes encouraged marriage but not having children.

In East Germany, on the contrary, the Soviet system was in place. Women worked, children went to daycare centres on a daily or weekly basis. Having children was encouraged though the selective attribution of housing to young households. "Family policies in West Germany blocked social change for decades," says Michaela Kreyenfeld, a sociologist at the Max-Planck Institute in Rostock. "Since the Wall fell, the decline in demographics is a threat to the balance of social programmes' budgets," she adds.

Cash sweetners

With a budget of €195 billion per year, German family programmes are today the most costly in the world. They include some 160 measures aimed at boosting the birth rate such as a very generous parental salary (60 per cent of the salary, capped at €1,800 for 12 to 14 months after the birth of a child) and family benefits of €250 per month per child.

Yet the measures are sometimes contradictory as a result of the complicated power games played by the coalitions in power in Berlin. Although Angela Merkel's CDU is now convinced that women should be encouraged to work, this is not the case of the CSU, its particularly conservative Bavarian ally. Thus, the government is supporting the development of care for very young children (every family will be allowed to claim a spot in daycare as of 2013). But it is also installing a "hearth bonus" (€250 per month in addition to family benefits for stay-at-home mums), the cost of which will slow the construction of new daycare centres.

"We are seeking to entice women to work, but we are not abolishing the tax measures that are very unfavourable to working women; we want more daycare centres, yet we install a hearth bonus," says Steffen Kröhnert adding, "All of this is incoherent." And impedes changes in attitudes.

A large majority of German woman are persuaded that the best care for a child of less than 3 years is to stay exclusively with its mother or grandmother, like in the old days.

They are convinced that, to be a good mother, they must give up their professional dreams. Yet, recent university graduates are no longer prepared to consent to the same sacrifices their own mothers made.

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