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Trying to Deliver a German Baby Boom

DW staff/AFP (jb)September 9, 2005

It's a statistic that scares not only single women but German leaders too. A third of 40-year-old women do not have children, causing politicians campaigning in Germany's election to push for a Teutonic baby boom.

Germans need to get to work if they want more childrenImage: AP

Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has made boosting a birthrate that is among the lowest in Europe one of the key pledges of an election campaign focused on reviving Germany's moribund economy.

His conservative challenger Angela Merkel, who looks set to become Germany's first woman chancellor, has promised a "better future for families" and financial help for parents until their children are 12 years old.

If their policies differ in the detail, the right and the left both hope to breathe new life into an ageing society and avoid a future of too many pensioners and too few young earners.

Well-meaning but ineffective

In 2004, the average German woman had only 1.3 children, and projections show that by 2050, a third of the population will be over the age of 60.

Gerhard Schröder und Weltkindertag Schreibtisch
Campaigning on a platform of childrenImage: AP

Analysts say that if the incentives promised by the politicians are well-meaning, it is unlikely that they could rapidly reverse a demographic trend that has been decades in the making.

They forecast that in the future almost half of those with a university education will never have children, in a country where the average life expectancy is around 76 for men and 82 for women.

President Horst Koehler sounded the alarm in July when he gave the go-ahead for elections 12 months ahead of schedule, warning: "We have too few children and we are getting older and older."

Family policy to make no difference

Yet the focus on family in the campaign seems to have almost no influence on how Germans will vote on September 18, according to Klaus-Peter Schoeppner, the head of the Emnid polling institute.

"Family policy is not expected to make any difference to the election results. The vote is dominated by concerns about the labour market, more so still than the last one in 2002," he said.

Angela Merkel
Merkel has no children herself.Image: AP

Merkel's Christian Democrats wish to preserve "the traditional family model" while Schröder's Social Democrats want to make life easier for working mothers and plan to create 230,000 new places in pre-schools by 2010.

The current government's family minister, Renate Schmidt, has proposed new payments for parents who take time off work to care for a baby of up to 1,800 euros ($2,230) per month, until the child's first birthday.

The plan has been described as "impossible to finance" by Ursula von der Leyen, a mother of seven who is considered as childless Merkel's likely choice of family minister should she win the election.

Instead the conservatives are promising tax breaks for parents as well as a reduction of their monthly contributions towards the state pension funds.

"Financial incentives are not enough," said Josef Schmid, a lecturer at the University of Bamberg in southern Germany. "We need more pre-schools like there are in France, greater measures to make it easier for women to combine children with a career and more stable couples."

Appreciation of children missing

In a study by the Federal Demographics Institute, 83 percent of those questioned said their main reason for not having children was the lack of a stable relationship. Some 60 percent also said they were too worried about what the future held to bring children into the world.

The German press has remarked that perhaps what is missing is a general appreciation of children, not constant reminders that every newborn will eventually be a consumer and taxpayer.

After all, the newspapers have said, the natural and somewhat obscure longing to have a child has little to do with state subsidies and labor market structures.

"Nobody wants to say out loud what is really happening," retired demographics professor Herwig Birg said.

He said the incentives to make more German babies have come "too late" and the ageing nature of the population has become "impossible to reverse".