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The Challenge of Demographic Change in Old, Shriveling Europe

Sabine Ripperger (jb)
January 23, 2006

After decades of ignorance, public awareness of demographic change in Europe is growing.

Many countries in Europe have low birth ratesImage: dpa

By 2050, every third German will be over 60 years old. That fact will affect the affluence and quality of life in Germany. And instead of high unemployment as a dominating theme, the discussion will instead become focused on labor shortages.

The problem essentially is the low birth rate -- German women have 1.3 children on average compared to 1.9 for the French. The reason is difficult to explain, says Francois Heran, director of the France's National Institute for Demographic Studies.

"The French birth rate is higher because of the continuity of 'family' politics and a series of complimentary measures by the government that affect daily life and education," she said. "I believe also, that the system of pre-school that we have certainly is an important factor in boosting the French birth rate -- 100 percent of children who are 3-years-old take part -- that is a world record. That isn't only childcare but also an element of education."

A new approach needed

In Germany, it has been long taboo to connect "family" politics with demographics, says Rudolf Herweck of the German Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth. But since 2003, there has been a change in perspective, he adds.

Vier Rentnerinnen
European countries are agingImage: AP

"Our new 'politics' is that additional money is not sufficient to support families and that we need a three-pronged approach focusing on money, time and infrastructure," he said. "Money also means measures such as money for seniors, for children, tax deductions. Another point is time -- that employers should take measures to make the workplace more family-friendly. And finally we have changed our strategy, reaching out to other players in society because we can't make sustainable changes alone."

Employers must be involved

Employers have to be a partner, says Johannes Meier of the Bertelsmann Foundation.

Baustelle Eisen für Betonwände p178
Germany is going to need more skilled workersImage: AP

"Employers must naturally realize, when they even half think about their long term interests, that our labor pool will dramatically change in the next twenty or thirty years," he said.

"They have to consider from where can we get qualified workers and how to guarantee that the skill level of employees is maintained. And that means very concretely that employers and local officials must take measures to reconcile work and family so that both parents can be gainfully employed. That is something normal in Scandinavian countries and in France and hopefully it will become something common for us, too."

Heran says that reforms in France tried to make it easier for working parents to return to work after having a child.

"When a woman in France has a child, she takes off work about one to three months, not three years," said Heran. "The French government also implemented a reform insuring that parents are compensated for their maternity leave but for a shorter time ensuring a more successful return to work."

Changing values

UN population expert Andres Vikat says that it will take a series of measures to affect a change in the birth rate. But he adds that part of the problem is a change in values.

"If a tradition model of a family, where the man works and the woman stays home with the children is seen as a hindrance to personal goals, then people are not going to do that," he said. "So if the state tries to promote that kind of model and go against the values of society, then even a large investment in measures promoting family is not going to have the desired results."

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