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Staying Home

Jennifer AbramsohnAugust 15, 2007

In Germany, recent reports show a new, more remunerative plan to encourage recent fathers to take paid parenting leave is starting to have an effect.

Stay-at-home dads can now spend more quality time with their childrenImage: AP

Since the beginning of the year, Germany has seen a leap in the number of fathers who take time off to stay home with their young children. The reason: a sweeping change in how parents are paid for what Germans refer to as the “babypause,” or parental leave.

In January, Germany changed its parental-leave laws to give new parents 67 percent of their salary for up to 12 months or up to 14 months if at least two months of the “pause” is taken by the father.

The percentage has an upper cap of 1,800 euros ($2,425) a month. Previously, stay-at-home parents were given a lump sum of up to 300 euros per month, if they were eligible at all.

Playing catch-up

“The fact that parental-leave payments are now based on earnings rather than a lump sum is an immense improvement over the earlier plan,” said Eberhard Schaefer, a consultant and founder of the Papa Institute, which advises politicians, businesses and individuals on issues surrounding fathers and fatherhood.

“Germany is finally catching up with other European countries -- especially in Scandinavia, but others as well," he said.

As a result of these changes, the German state approved some 200,000 applications for paid parental leave in 2007, German Family Minister Ursula von der Leyen said in Berlin on Wednesday. And the number of applications more than doubled from the first to the second quarters, from 60,000 to 140,000 per quarter.

Frau im Büro
The plan steers mothers back to the workplaceImage: BilderBox

“Clearly, this parental-leave policy is a hit,” said von der Leyen, whose mission to ease the road for working parents in Germany has made her a controversial figure here since she took office in 2005.

“I am especially thrilled with the growing number of fathers who take paid parental leave,” added von der Leyen, herself a career woman with seven children.

Financial effect

Last year, just 3.5 percent of fathers across Germany took paid leave after their children were born. Today, that number is up to 8.5 percent. The states with the highest quotas of applicants for “papa leave” include Berlin, Brandenburg, Bavaria and Hamburg, all of which were above the average.

At 8.5 births per 1,000 inhabitants, Germany has the lowest birth rate in Europe. Many observers believe this will only change when attitudes and policies become friendlier toward working parents.

Ursula von der Leyen
Von der Leyen -- happy with her plan's resultsImage: AP

“Over the years I have heard from families and fathers that they couldn’t afford to stop working for those few months," said Papa Institute's Schaefer. "Now, they are only losing 33 percent of their income, so many fathers and mothers say, ‘OK, we can afford to do this for ourselves.”

“They do it gladly because they don’t want to lose the opportunity,” he adds.

Susanne Seyda, an analyst in family economics at the Institute for Business (IW) in Cologne, said the new regulation may simply have given more men the ability to ask for something they may have wanted all along.

Previously, men may have worried about what staying home with their child would do to their career, Seyda argues. “Now they are in a stronger bargaining position when they go to ask for the time off. The employer knows there is financial incentive, and they find it easier to understand."

Back to the work force, quicker

The pro-business think tank stands behind the new plan, Seyda said, because they think it could both boost German birth rates, and help get women back into the work force more quickly.

“The opportunity costs are lower because parents don’t lose as much income,” Seyda noted. “Highly qualified couples are more likely to have more children.”

Beyond that, under the new regulation, the government assistance runs out after 12 months -- or 14 if the father takes two months. Then, for the mother, its back to the work force -- or the assistance runs out. Under the old plan, assistance continued for three years.

“That means women’s working responsibilities will grow and there will not be such a great loss of human capital,” Seyda said.

But birth rates and economic improvement is not as important as the effect such a change could have on German society, Papa Institute's Schaefer says.

He points out that studies have shown that fathers who spend time with their infants continue to spend more time with them as they grow up “which could only be seen as a positive.”

Symbolbild Elterngeld Vater mit Kleinkindern
More fun than a day at the office?Image: AP

Furthermore, experience with his own clients show that fathers don’t want their role to be solely that of breadwinner, or extra helper for the mother, who does the real job of raising the children.

“They want to be seen as independent, responsible parents,” which is often hard to negotiate when the mother has the sole, day-to-day responsibility with the children, he added.

"Can't call for mommy"

Clearly, Schaefer is on to something: The average length of paid leave taken by fathers so far is 4.3 months, well beyond the two months required to get the extra pay.

Dieter Fichter, a senior consultant at Siemens in Frankfurt, is beyond the “babypause” years. His two children are 9 and 14 years old, and when they were infants he often put in long hours at work.

But, he said, colleagues of his now are taking the paid-leave offer, albeit just the minimum two months required to get the extra pay. It isn’t seen as something that would damage their careers, he said.

“Missing two months of work is not too long, its nothing,” Fichter said.

Moreover, he said, if such an offer had been available to him to him at the time, he would have taken it.

“I think it would give you a closer relationship with your child,” he said.

"You have a better understanding of what it means to be the person who has to take care of a child all day long, and know what its needs are," Fichter said.

"You’re not just with the child for a few hours on weekends. And you can’t call for help from mommy if the baby is crying.”