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The Dumbing Down of Germany

Deanne Corbett, DW-WORLD.DE
April 21, 2005

A German politician was roundly criticized recently for commenting that only the "wrong people" were having children in Germany. But he was giving voice to an uncomfortable truth about the country’s demographic shift.

Social background makes all the difference in German schoolsImage: Bilderbox

Daniel Bahr, the 28-year-old parliamentarian and national committee member of the German liberal party, the FDP, will likely employ a great deal more tact when speaking with the media in future. In a recent interview with the tabloid Bild am Sonntag, Bahr didn't mince words about a demographic problem he thinks is headed Germany's way.

Daniel Bahr
Daniel Bahr (FDP)Image: dpa

It's not that Germans are having too few children -- that's something the majority are well aware of by now. Rather, it's the "wrong" Germans who are procreating -- the "socially weak," who are often poorly educated, Bahr said, stirring up a furore in the process. The German elite, on the other hand, are not reproducing. Government census statistics suggest that over 40 percent of female academics remain childless in Germany. Bahr's unfortunate choice of words aside, he has a point.

"If you look at the fairly highly educated group, it's exceptional for Germany," said Reiner Klingholz, director of the Berlin Institute for Population and Development. "The rate of childlessness among the elite is the highest among western countries."

Disadvantaged at school

This imbalance wouldn't be such a problem, were it not reinforced by the German education system. As Bahr pointed out, the so-called PISA studies which assess academic performance internationally have shown that the higher the parental level of education, the better a child performs in school. In Germany, experts say this correlation between social background and academic success is stronger than in most other Western countries.

Deutsche und Türken in Kreuzberg
The children of immigrants to Germany are particularly disadvantaged when it comes to academic success.Image: Bilderbox

"In Germany, it's not just the fact that it's the less well-educated who are having the children, but also the fact that it's exactly these people who, through our education system, are extremely disadvantaged," said Gisela Erler, a researcher on family issues and president of Familienservice, a company that offers work-life balance solutions to its clients.

"When children are born to poorly qualified parents, the difference here is that they practically have the worst chances of becoming successful students. And that means we have a system that will produce fewer quality students when what we actually need are more highly skilled people."

So is the country at risk of "dumbing down," as some German media have prognosticated?

"It looks this way," said Klingholz. "Especially in those regions that are already demographic crisis zones -- places in eastern Germany and the former industrial heartlands of western Germany such as the Ruhr basin, where there is outward migration of young educated people. The people remaining in these places are older, less educated, and the education level is dropping dramatically in these cities."

Encouraging elites to reproduce

Bahr has argued that the solution should be for government to direct its family policies at elites, and encourage them to start having more children. But, as Erler said, that would mean only addressing one side of the issue.

"We only have the population we have, we only have those children who are being born," she said. "We can help academics to have more kids -- that's sensible and important. But we also have to make the best of those children born in the lower classes, to see that they get support through the kindergarten and school systems. The state is only just starting to act on that."

And, as Klingholz pointed out, the government can only do so much to compensate elites for the disadvantages they frequently associate with starting a family -- the cost of raising children, the loss in income should one parent leave work to stay at home, and the opportunity cost of taking time out of their careers.

"Financial incentives are good, but people with higher education tend to invest much more in their children," he said. "If one parent gives up their job for a year or two, the opportunity cost is much higher in wealthier families. And whereas the cost of having a child in a poor family might be 50,000 euros ($65,000) until the child is 18, in highly educated families, that cost might be 300,000 euros. So small financial incentives don't make childbearing more attractive for elites."

Too little, too late?

Jungunternehmerin mit Kind (Anja)
Image: Bilderbox

Financial incentives and tax benefits are indeed part of a package of measures the government is introducing to help achieve its stated goal of transforming Germany into the most family-friendly nation in Europe. Other measures include expanding the nation's daycare offerings, and encouraging German companies to introduce family-friendly policies in the workplace. The Ministry for Families is also working with economic leaders and education experts to examine the state of early childhood education in Germany, and identify ways of improving equal opportunity for children from diverse social backgrounds.

The question is -- will it be enough to stop a potential lack of highly skilled brainpower in the future?

"It's too little, too late," said Klingholz. "But we still have to face the facts. Changes are needed now to achieve results 20 years down the road. We cannot afford to lose even more brain capital."

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