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Tackling the Birth-Rate Problem

Tamsin Walker, DW-WORLD.DE
July 28, 2005

Sandwiched between short-term unemployment woes and steadily declining birth rates, Germany has only gradually set about tackling its population problems.

Germany's falling birth rate is a source of some national alarmImage: Bilderbox

At issue are the impacts of a dwindling birth rate and an aging population on the economy and the workforce in decades to come. It is not an immediate problem, nor is it one which will be unique to Germany, but nonetheless, people here seem to have cottoned onto this distant prospect and woven it into the woes of the nation in a way that other Europeans facing the same, or even worse predictions, have not.

The indicators do indeed show that there will be a disproportionate number of over 60s living in Germany by 2050, but what is it that makes the population of today worry so far ahead about a problem to which other nations seem to turn an ignorantly blind eye?

Not a new problem

Steffen Kröhnert of the Berlin Institute for World Population and Global Development says there are two factors which fuel Germany's concern.

Flüsternde Kinder
The country needs more of these little onesImage: Bilderbox

"Birth rates in Germany have been falling since the seventies, whereas in other countries the trend only started ten years ago, and it takes time for people to take the problem on board," Kröhnert said.

"But moreover, high unemployment levels led to a lot of talk about empty state coffers. People were not worrying about demographic issues, but when they started to realize how the problems of the labor market were affecting national finances, they began to think differrently," he added.

With arguments abounding that the density of the world population is already too much for our natural resources to sustain, there is the question of whether it is justifiable to continue pushing for greater human growth rates at all.

Kröhnert says the aim is not to spawn a continually bigger population, but to find ways of dealing with the steady decline and the reality that each generation is a third smaller than the one it succeeds.

Does Germany really need more people? The economists say yes.Image: AP

"It would be enough if the birth rate simply remained stable, but as long as it continues to fall, the imbalance cannot be corrected," he said.

Seeking answers abroad

Katerina von Schurbein, EU Commission Spokeswoman for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities, says Europe will have to look beyond its own boundaries to tackle the problem.

"By 2030, the European workforce will be 20 million people short. Migration can help, but it won't be easy to bring the equivalent of two small EU countries into the continent," she said.

The very notion of such in Germany's current economic climate is enough to start a small revolution. For although the impending societal imbalance is being taken at face value here, it is outdone in terms of severity by the more pressing issue of defiantly high unemployment figures.

Frau auf dem Flur von Arbeitsamt
Hoping for employmentImage: AP

Germans with jobs are very protective of them, and those without are not keen to share the waiting list with an influx of work-hungry foreigners. But Kröhnert says that mentality is based on Germany's experience of unqualified migrant laborers, adding that country currently has no space for them, but needs influx of qualified workers.

Making the most of it

Dealing with two ends of the same stick at one and the same time is a challenge to say the least, and Sabine Maass of the German Ministry of Economics and Labor says that although the priority is reducing joblessness, the government is also looking ahead.

"We are working towards making the best use of all the potential which exists in Germany. That means increasing the average pension age, improving the situation for women, and improving childcare options," she said.

But getting German women to have children and a career is a tall order. Even generous family allowance, affordable childcare and tax breaks are moderate motivators. Steffen Kröhnert believes the lavish financial incentives offered by the German government are more a part of the problem than the cure.

"The money is being ploughed into the wrong places and does not reflect what people really want. No other European country does so much to support the model of the man who goes out to work and takes on the sole financial responsibility for the family," he said.

Rentner protestieren gegen eine mögliche Kürzung ihrer Rente
The future face of Germany?Image: AP

He refers in part ot Germany's tax system which is built around the old-fashioned idea that a man does the financial hunting and gathering for his family while the woman stays home and raises the children.

"Countries like France have got it right in slashing tax for couples with two or more children," Kröhnert added. And maybe he is right, because unlike Germany, France is looking at a self-sustaining population in years to come.