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Opinion: How to Boost the German Birth Rate

Rolf Wenkel (jp)
March 16, 2006

The birth rate in Germany has plummeted to the lowest level since 1945, creating a demographic crunch that will create massive problems for the social welfare state. So what else is new, wonders DW's Rolf Wenkel.

Germany needs to bring on the babiesImage: AP

The Federal Statistics Office sent Germany into shock Wednesday when it revealed that the country's birth rate is at a postwar low. Between 680,000 and 690,000 babies were born in Germany last year, even less than 700,000 registered in the final year of World War II.

It might be news to most of the population, but figures like these have been a fact of life for statisticians and politicians for decades. The problem is, no one listens to the former and the latter tend not to address issues without immediate relevance.

In fact, the population slump is part of a gradual development that's been a long time coming. But what's most incomprehensible about the phenomenon is that despite living in an age of advanced technology and sophisticated scientific research, we've completely failed to react to the fact that Germany's birth rate has been galloping downhill for the last 30 years.

Demographic developments evolve much like glaciers and sand dunes. You can't actually see what's changing, but there's no doubt a shift is taking place -- slowly, inexorably and imperceptibly.

But after a while, you get bored with watching -- and turn your attention elsewhere.

Looking for a scapegoat

That's certainly what happened in Germany. Now, however, there's no looking away. Inevitably, the country needs someone to blame for its record rate of childlessness. Is it the fault of the generation of 1968 -- those hedonistic hippies who took the pill and turned up their noses at bourgeois concepts of marriage and stable family life?

Glückliche Eltern beim Picknicken auf einer Wiese
Families are still fashionableImage: dpa

Of course not. Whatever they said 40 years ago, there did come a time when the baby boomers settled down and raised children -- just as their parents had. And contrary to popular belief, those children have also grown up hoping they'll get married and start a family. So no change there. Marriage and kids are still high on most 20-somethings' wish list. It's the gap between that wish-list and reality that's the problem.

Economic factors

To most young couples, the main obstacles to having children are the country's high jobless rates and bleak employment prospects. When times are tough, the last thing on anyone's to-do list will be reproducing. Eastern Germany and most countries in eastern Europe all suffer from depressed birth rates. The obvious solution would be to change economic and unemployment policies.

Neighboring western Europe and Scandinavia, in contrast, boast flourishing child-care systems that don't even leave parents out of pocket. Affordable kindergartens and whole-day schooling allow working mothers and fathers to head to the office without feeling guilty, while shorter education and training periods make it possible to shimmy up that career ladder with plenty of time left to think about the best moment to start a family.

Kindergarten in Deutschland
Kindergartens in Germany don't come cheapImage: AP

State support for families is just as generous as it is in Germany, but it's paid in the early years -- unlike here, where it's sparingly dispensed and reduced as soon as a child is sent to kindergarten.

So rather than watching that glacier, Germany should start watching its neighbors, where birth rates are in far better shape. But even if the country learns its lessons, the results would only become apparent in the next 30 years.

That's the thing about glaciers -- they take their time. But they can't be ignored.

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