The second Berlin Demography Forum heard stark warnings about Germany's low birth rate and aging society. Experts called for new policies to address demographic change.
An astonishing development took place in human history around 30,000 years ago: For the first time, members of Homo sapiens lived long enough to become grandparents.
"With that, they altered the social fabric," Family Minister Kristina Schröder said in her opening address to the second annual Berlin Demography Forum. It was through this development that modern humanity even became possible, she said.
A change in social fabric
Schröder's observation on this ancient trend is based on recent scientific knowledge. US anthropologist Rachel Caspari has intensively researched the evolutionary significance of aging. Her thesis is that the first grandmas and grandpas enlarged the clan and took on an important social function. With that, Homo sapiens gained an important advantage over the Neanderthals, who died before reaching that age.
Today we live in an age where people often become great-grandparents. But it was not increasing longevity that Schröder talked about, but rather the importance to society of transferring intergenerational knowledge. "Progress requires two sides: the experience of the old and the pioneering spirit of the young," she said.
Low awareness of the problem
Ensuring the participation of the elderly, creating a sense of solidarity and promoting intergenerational interaction constitute some of the political work necessary to making demographic change positive and advantageous, Schröder said.
But much work remains until that point is reached. In international comparison, Germany has had trouble coming to terms with its demographic change: The topic only entered the public discourse in the last decade.
And awareness of the challenges facing an aging society is an even more recent development - an official government demographics strategy policy has only existed since fall 2011. It was shortly after this that the first official government summit on the issue was held. The Berlin Demography Forum started in early 2012 as a platform for international debate.
The forum's Deputy General Secretary Yves Leterme warned at this year's forum that in Germany, for reasons including low birth rates and rising life expectancy, "demographic change will have much greater effects in Germany than, for example, in France or the US."
He therefore promoted a broad shift in mentality, where politicians pay closer heed to the needs of young people while telling the elderly of "the important role they play in society, and that they are not a burden."
Other countries offer potential solutions
Leterme told the Berlin conference that in Australia so-called intergenerational reports provide a leading example. In addition, grandparents can write off their taxes the right to 50 hours per week in caring for their grandchildren.
In the Czech Republic, Russia, and Slovenia as well, grandparents are encouraged to jump in when parents are having difficulties. Schröder said she wants the same for Germany, promoting state support for the role of grandparents.
Numerous notable representatives from politics, economics, science and civil society also participated in this year's demography forum - including the chairman of German insurance giant Allianz. The topic of demographic change should be discussed regularly at a national and international level, like climate change, he said. "It will just get harder, the longer we wait," he said.
A negative example
In the round of discussion that followed, international demographics experts had their say. Poland is an absolute "negative example," said Janina Joswiak of the Warsaw School of Economics. In Poland, within a single decade, the birth rate fell from among the highest in Europe to one of the lowest. This had a huge effect on the age distribution, she explained.
Chinese family commissioner Dan He reported that in his country the 60-plus demographic is growing by 8 million people per year. China intends to address the issue more intensively, he said.
Ursula Lehr: Crisis a result of bad policies and bad attitudes
Norbert Schneider, who directs the German Institute for Population Research, pointed out that demographic changes are always occurring and that in the end, there's no truly stable population. What is new, he said, is the speed and intensity of the changes.
Schneider also noted that there are great differences between countries and regions. But universally valid, in his view, are more working women, a new understanding of solidarity and an expanded view of migration.
Migrants will be increasingly important in order to strengthen an aging society and will more often commute between countries, Schneider said. This makes it important for a society to be welcoming, he said. Schneider mentioned that the "silver market" also offers economic opportunities as well, referring to the age group with gray hair.
The forum intensively discussed the topic of age limits. Why, for example, is 65 the upper age limit for mayors in Germany? The nearly unanimous view was that age limits should be removed. Jasmin Passet, a 29-year-old member of the young experts panel, spoke out in favor of more flexible lifetime planning. School, work, retirement - this model has seen its day, she said.
Just start early
The young experts were given tips on work and family from Ursula Lehr, former German minister for families and a leading scholar in the field of family and aging research. The now 82-year-old has researched why women in Germany are having children later and later. Politicians have also made errors, she said, by treating children as an expensive burden. The "prolonged adolescence" enjoyed by many Germans even into their 20s and 30s plays a role, as does the still widespread misconception in Germany that a woman is a bad mother if she is not there 24 hours a day to take care of her toddler.
"More money from the state does not motivate people to produce more children," Lehr said of the many family-friendly policies in Germany. Her advice for young people was this: "Start having babies early!"