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'Career or kids' dilemma drove German baby drought

Interview: Mark HallamMarch 6, 2015

Like much of the western world, Germans are dying faster than they're breeding. Indeed, the country's fertility rates are among the lowest in the world. DW discusses the reasons with researcher Stephan Sievert.

Mutter mit Kleinkind vor einem Notebook
Image: Fotolia/Fotowerk

DW: Mr. Sievert, in the Bertelsmann Foundation immigration report released Friday (06.03.2015), 28 percent of those surveyed said they thought that the national population would remain stable, or drop only slightly, with zero immigration into Germany. Were they right?

Stephan Sievert: No, not at all. Without immigration, our population would continue to shrink, markedly...

Detuschland Stephan Sievert Forscher am Berlin-Institut für Bevölkerung und Entwicklung
Stephan Sievert was surprised to see a quarter of Germans so mistaken about the country's demographic developmentImage: Berlin-Institut für Bevölkerung und Entwicklung

...A drop of around 20 million by 2060, according to estimates from the German government statistics agency, Destatis.

We talk a lot about our demographics and population here in Germany, and one would have thought that most people - almost everybody - knew the lay of the land by now. To see more than a quarter be so mistaken on the issue is really very surprising.

Last year, this demographic dip was canceled out by record immigration - Germany's net migration was an increase of roughly 400,000 people [1.2 million in, 800,000 out]. But a lot of factors - not least recession in the eurozone and conflict in the Arab World - combined to bring this about. Presumably, these immigration rates are not likely to stay this high in the long term?

Probably not. The vast majority of immigrants still come from other EU countries - from new members, like Romania, Poland or Bulgaria, but also from southern European countries like Spain and Greece. And this is something of a free market - they're coming to Germany because they see better employment prospects here. If, for example, the recession in southern Europe were to let up, then this trend might reverse. Either they could return home, or start to see Germany as a less attractive place for relocation. Certainly, we can't rely on these numbers holding. And that's why many efforts in immigration policy are currently focusing on other, non-EU countries - to make Germany more attractive elsewhere.

Infografik Germanys Age Structure Englisch Infografik Detail
These population predictions are based on a steady fertility rate and net immigration into Germany of 100,000 people per year

Do the new arrivals help counter the aging population? Presumably the vast majority are of working age?

Yes, they are. The average age for immigrants into Germany is roughly 30, so of working age - this is mainly economic migration, after all - and also a great many of them are highly qualified. The quota of EU migrants with a university degree is actually higher than it is for German citizens. But, many of them also have few or poor qualifications by German standards. There's a greater discrepancy in skill levels among immigrants than the domestic population.

Suffering as the "baby boomer" generation ages is by no means a German phenomenon, it's just the same for much of the western world. But Germany's birth rate is particularly low. As of the last OECD study in 2011, the German birth rate was dead last - 236th of 236 countries - at just over 8 people per 1,000 per annum.

It's true this number is really low, because of the large proportion of the German population that is now too old to have children. But the more interesting figure is the "total fertility rate." This shows how many children the average woman has in her lifetime - and in Germany it has stood at around 1.4 since 1970. It's not budging whatsoever. Many other countries experienced this drop, especially with the advent of oral contraception in the 1960s and 70s, but the German dip was particularly sharp when compared with, say, Scandinavia or France [editor's note: France's total fertility rate is 2.0, similar to levels in Scandinavia, the UK and the US].

We're talking about 1.4 - given that it's a couple, the break-even rate must be around 2?

Yes, we tend to say around 2.1, because of course not everybody lives long enough to raise children, but basically it is 2. And 1.4 is of course just two-thirds of that. This means that each generation is one-third smaller than the one before.

In part, this can be explained because for a very long time women really faced a stark choice: career, or kids. For years, relatively few women in Germany worked, especially if they also had children. The political class is now trying to change this, and it's already the case than many more women are both working and raising children. But of course it's difficult to change this completely, because it's become a kind of social norm. Not having children is considered completely normal here, whereas in France it's much more rare.

This seems like something of a vicious cycle. On the one side there's the demand for a larger workforce, for fewer stay-at-home parents - and then there's the call for more young people to start a family. Can these two requirements be satisfied simultaneously?

Yes, they can. Without doubt. It's even the case that in countries where more children are being born, like France or Scandinavia, more women are still going to work. It's a question of options and flexibility: the chance to work part time, easy routes back into a job after taking maternity or paternity leave, and of course state-run childcare, either at Kindergartens or daycare centers.

Symbolbild - Kita
Trying to provide daycare to all parents who would like it is one of the German government's current reform plansImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Expanding daycare facilities is one of the plans currently on the table in Berlin.

There's an awful lot now being done, but of course all of it has come very late. For a very long time, we dozed on this development. Now, many improvements are being made, but the situation's already quite a mess. Years like this mean that the baby boomer generation has become a vast group - and one that's about to go into retirement - when compared to our younger generations.

What else could the government, or employers, do?

There are two options: more children, or more immigration! And more children won't help in the short term, because it would take a good 20 years until a new baby boom was ready to work. By then, all of the Baby Boomers would be years into retirement. Therefore, the main way to bolster the workforce is through immigration; provided efforts are made to ensure that the new arrivals are integrated and find work.

Stephan Sievert is a researcher with the Berlin Institute for Population and Development, an organization focused on providing critical studies and policy proposals to deal with Germany's aging and shrinking population. Sievert specializes in the procurement of skilled labor.