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Germany: Birth rate drops, confirms dramatic prediction

Rina Goldenberg
July 31, 2020

Births in Germany are down, while its population ages. It's a similar trend in other countries. A new study predicts a dramatic reduction in the population in most countries by the end of the century.

Three babies lying in a cot
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/W. Grubitzsch

"I don't want to have a child until I'm really ready for it." This is the kind of statement Hamburg gynecologist Christine Biermann hears a lot from her patients.

"The search for the perfect job and the perfect partner are deciding factors for women to put off childbirth for several years," she says.

Germany saw 778,000 births in 2019. That is 9,400 fewer than the year before, or a birth rate of 1.54 per woman, according to new figures published by Germany's federal statistics office (Destatis.)

That's average within the European Union. France is at the top and Malta at the bottom.

Map of Europe showing birth rate per country
Germany is average when it comes to the birth rate across the EU

Education has to pay off

On average, German women have their first child shortly after turning 30. That's the oldest in the EU after to Italy. While women in Bulgaria are the youngest, starting their families at age 26.

Better educated women have fewer children — not only in Germany, but everywhere — as raising a family has become just one of several options of what to do with your life. In cities across western Germany, one in five women aged 45 to 54 has no children at all. These are mainly academics, who have invested a lot of time in their professional careers.

"We have a record number of university students," says Philipp Deschermeier from the German Society for Demography.

Read more: COVID-19 childcare burden 'destroying' mothers' careers

"When they have finished their studies they want to land a good job, which requires mobility. That is a challenge for family planning. So we need more options that allow people to work from home or part-time and for childcare so that both parents can work," he explains.

Woman with mobile phone, laptop and two kids
Combining work with raising a family is a major challenge for young womenImage: picture-alliance/dpa/K.-J. Hildenbrand

Martin Bujard, research director with the German Institute for Population Research (BiB), sees no reason to be alarmed by the latest figures. He points out that Germany has actually seen a positive trend in the last 10 years.

"The rise in the birth rate since 2010 is a success story," he says. "One of the reasons is an investment in improving childcare. The number of daycare places for toddlers has risen from 10- to 30% since 2007."

There is, however, still room for improvement, he admits.

Big families need big incomes

A survey from the BiB shows that two-thirds of young people say having many children is wonderful. But half of them also say that big families are only for those who can actually afford them.

German reality is different — one-quarter of families with three children or more said they have trouble making ends meet.

Just 16% of German families have three children or more, which again is average for the EU — but a long way behind front-runner Ireland, where one-third of families have at least three children.

A study by BiB published last year found that big families in Germany tend to have a strong religious background — mainly Muslim, but also Catholic — and live where accommodation is affordable: Suburban and rural areas rather than city centers.

Defaulting to old gender roles

Migration affects the birth rate

Germany would need a birth rate of 2.1 children per woman to offset deaths and stop the population from shrinking. Such numbers have not been measured since before the birth control pill was introduced in the 1970s.

Germany's population has not shrunk because of immigration.

Read more: German population of migrant background rises to 21 million

Since the 1950s, when Germany actively recruited workers in southeastern Europe for its booming economy, the number of people moving to Germany has been high. The biggest influx was seen in 2015, with over 2 million arrivals: Economic migrants from southern Europe, but also refugees from Syria and other crisis regions.

Immigrants tend to be young, educated, have jobs and pay taxes — and have young children.In 2016, the German statistics office measured an above-average birth rate for the country. Many of the children were born to women from southern Europe.

Turkish family in Germany in 1979 standing in front of a row of houses
Turkish immigrant families in Germany in the 1970s often had five or more childrenImage: picture-alliance/dpa/K. Rose

"Many young people come to Germany and that balances out our birth rate deficit," says demography expert Deschermeier. "In a way, Germany profited from the economic crises in southern and southeastern EU countries."

In 2019, the birthrate among immigrants was well above the average and stood at over 2 per woman.

Here, too, there is a correlation between education and childbirth: Migrants with higher education have as few children as their German counterparts.

Read more: Many children across the EU don't live where they were born 

A global decline

The medical journal The Lancet published a study in July predicting declining fertility rates by the end of the century, everywhere except sub-Saharan Africa. The researchers from the University of Washington pinned the birth rate at 1.5 by 2100 — substantially less than the United Nation's estimate of 1.8.

Read more: Iran's declining birth rate alarms country's leaders

Children in the Central African Republic
Sub-saharan Africa is the only region researchers don't expect a population declineImage: Jack Losh

More than 20 countries — including Japan, Spain, Italy, and Poland — will see their population halved by then. And even China will see a drop to 730 million from 1.4 billion today.

"Most countries outside of Africa will see shrinking workforces and inverting population pyramids, which will have profound negative consequences for the economy," according to the study's lead author IHME Director Christopher Murray.

Read more: How as the one-child policy affected China?

German demographer Martin Bujard, however, is skeptical. "Predictions of birth rates for such a long period of time are pure speculation," he says. "It is possible to predict development of population size and life expectancy, but to specifically the birth rate relies on many factors that are unpredictable for such a long period."

An army of octogenarians

Meanwhile, life expectancy rises around the globe. Even continued immigration of young people will not prevent German society from ageing. The next few years will see the "Babyboomer" generation, born in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as the first generation of immigrants heading into retirement.

German population pyramid for 2020
Germany's population has been ageing for 50 years

Already only 18% of Germany's population is under the age of 20 — a marked drop from 30% in 1950. Back then one in 100 Germans was 80 or above. Now it is one in 15 — in 2040 it is likely to be one in 10.

Worldwide, Murray's study predicts the 80-plus population will balloon from its current 140 million to 866 million by the end of the century.

This trend could pose economic challenges, as workforces shrink and demand on public healthcare and pension systems grow, though not necessarily.

Read more: Germany's firefighters on the decline as aging strikes

"It is the productivity of a society that is the most relevant," says Wolfgang Lutz, founding director of the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital. He says adding more women to

the workforce and keeping qualified workers in their jobs beyond the current retirement age would go a long way in countering the negative impacts of population decline.

Coronavirus and demography

Historic records show economic instability having a negative effect on a country's birth rate. Germany, for example, saw a dramatic decline in births in the early 1930s, after the Great Depression, and in former East Germany following reunification in 1990. The resulting economic decline brought the birth rate in that part of the country to a record low of 1.2 children per woman.

Read more: Germany's economy can't count on bouncing back

Demographers expect the birth rate to be impacted again, in Germany and elsewhere, as a result ofrecession brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

"I am curious to see whether many people are so worried about health issues and their economic future that they put off having children, or whether the lockdown that forced couples to stay home may have us set for a baby boom in early 2021," says demography expert Deschermeier.

A springtime survey by the London School of Economics may offer a sneak peek at what's to come. It found the coronavirus epidemic has had a predominately negative effect on the fertility plans of people 18-to-34 across five European countries: the UK, Italy, France, Spain and Germany.