German President Horst Köhler took office last July by posing a question: “Why do we have fewer and fewer children?” the father of two asked in his inauguration address.
Since then, Köhler and many other Germans have been thinking about and working on a problem that has serious long-range implications for the country’s population, economy and social services systems.
As part of the work, Köhler called together leaders from business, labor and government last month to help chart a course that will increase the birth rate in Germany. Afterward, Germany’s family minister, Renate Schmidt, expressed a new commitment to the issue. “Family policies will increasingly become a national issue,” Schmidt said. “It will be supported by all of the important forces within society.”
The problem can be described in simple numbers.
“German women have fewer children than just about anyone in the world,” according to a study by the Berlin Institute for World Population and Global Development that was released last April. “The average number of 1.37 is hardly sufficient to keep the population stable. At least 2.1 children would be needed to meet this goal.”
While the birth rate has been dropping, the number of elderly citizens has been rising. As this trend continues, the country will have fewer working-age citizens to finance the social services used by the non-working elderly generation.
“Germany has to prepare for difficult times in which cherished ideas about prosperity and total security are called into question,” the study said.
Since taking office, Schmidt has found one explanation for the low birth rate: Germany’s well-educated women are not becoming mothers.
“Childlessness among women as well as among men rises in step with a person’s qualification and level of education,” Schmidt said. “Anybody who has a good education wants to get his or her career going. And by the time they turn 34, it becomes harder and harder to decide to have a child.”
Such a trend also has been tracked by one of Germany’s leading pollsters, Renate Köcher of the Allensbach Institute of Public Opinion Research. “The elite are reproducing at a below-average rate,” Köcher said.
The institute has determined that 42 percent of female college graduates would not have children, and Köcher said that 31 percent of women born in 1965 would remain childless. That is the highest level in Europe and compares with 9 percent in France.
In a separate study, the Forsa research institute zeroed in on the reasons that well-educated women had for not having children. The two leading reasons cited by 44 percent of respondents each were: the lack of the right partner and their satisfaction with their lives without children.
Deeper down the list were reasons that are commonly cited as a barrier on child-bearing in Germany. Nine percent cited the lack of adequate child care as a reason for not wanting to have children.
The German government has already created a number of incentives for people to become parents. It provides families with financial payments and allows them to take time off or work part time during the first years of their new babies’ lives. Under a new law, Schmidt’s ministry is providing €1.5 billion ($1.9 billion) a year to communities in a push to increase care for children younger than 3. The goal is to increase the number of care slots from 60,000 in western Germany now to 230,000 by 2010.
Schmidt, who has three children, said she hoped this offer would encourage women who are worried about their careers to have children. “Seventy percent of mothers who are housewives today would rather be working,” she said.
As a second part of the effort, Schmidt said companies needed to help parents by creating flexible job schedules. Some of Germany’s leading companies already have introduced their own programs aimed at helping working parents. Commerzbank spends €1.5 million each year on such programs, which include an emergency child-care service that employees can use if their regular helper suddenly becomes ill. The media company Bertelsmann began supporting two kindergartens near the company more than 10 years ago, and the retailer Metro is planning to open its first company kindergarten in Düsseldorf this year.
Despite all of these efforts, Schmidt said Germans needed to make a basic change in their thinking. “We should re-examine our attitudes about families,” she said. “Children are considered to be a poverty risk and a burden, as something terrible. But the people who have children think they are an enrichment and a joy.”