German Leaders Wake Up to Shrinking Population

Erik Kirschbaum, Reuters, Jan. 23, 2006

BERLIN—Are Germans an endangered species?

Stunning as it may seem, a steep decline in the German population since 1972 and fears the trend will gain pace have led demographers to warn of unsettling consequences.

The number of Germans has declined by 3.2 million—the population of Berlin—over the last 30 years but demographers’ concerns have mostly been ignored until now in a country scarred by the Nazis’ nefarious procreation pressures.

German leaders have now lifted the birth rate to the top of the political agenda for the first time since the Nazi era, and the two ruling parties are trying to outdo each other with pro-family measures.

“Germans are at risk of dying out if the trend continues,” said Harald Michel, managing director of the Institute for Applied Demography. He fears the German population could shrink from 75 million to 50 million by 2050 and further after that.

“The birth rates have been below the replacement rate for 35 years—a lethal development,” he added. “Germans could become an ‘endangered people.’ It’s hypothetical now but we may have to think about ‘the last German’ at some point. The problem is compounded each generation. Children not born 30 years ago obviously aren’t there to have children now.”

Germans have long had one of the lowest birth rates in the European Union at 1.3 children per woman—far below the “replacement rate” of 2.1 needed to keep the population stable and about half the rate of 40 years ago.

More than 30 percent of east and west Germans born from 1960 to 1967 will remain childless. Among Germans with higher education, the childless rate is even higher at 38 percent.

“Each generation is being reduced by about a third,” said Norbert Walter, chief economist at Deutsche Bank.

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Low birth rates plague other nations like Italy, Russia and Japan where the Yomiuri daily said last month that the average number of children a woman bears in her lifetime fell to a record low in 2005.

But demographers say Germany is worse off because the problem has been ignored for so long. In other leading industrial nations like the United States, Britain and France, birth rates are much closer to the replacement rate.

“Why did we show so little interest the last 40 years as we went from a republic rich with children to one with a children shortage?” ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder asked last year.

Now, interest has revived. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government—formed late last year—recently agreed to give new mothers generous one-year wage replacement subsidies. Plans to eliminate fees for kindergarten are also being floated.

“It’s the first time since 1945 that a German government has come out of the closet about population policy,” wrote the Berliner Zeitung newspaper. “Family policy is suddenly chic.”

Despite state financial support of 150 billion euros ($180 billion) a year for child support programs including monthly subsidies of 154 euros per child, many Germans are reluctant to start families due to a generally frosty attitude to children.

Parents with young children are often made to feel unwelcome in restaurants, employers rarely make arrangements for workers with small children, preschool care in some places is hard to find and fees far exceed costs for university. Many schools also close at noon, making it difficult for working parents.

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BERLIN—Ursula von der Leyen, a medical doctor and the mother of seven, wants Germans to have more babies.

Since taking the family affairs portfolio in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Cabinet, she has been making proposals that have put the family high on Germany’s political agenda.

Her calls for free child care and extensive tax breaks for families with small children have put the spotlight on Germany’s low birthrate.

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In a country where large families are now seen as an oddity—partly in reaction to the Nazis’ pressure to procreate—Mrs. von der Leyen’s costly pro-family plans have dominated the headlines this year.

Determined to overhaul Germany’s child-care system and end the frosty attitude toward families, Mrs. von der Leyen sparked a debate by urging states and communities to slash or even eliminate preschool-care charges that far exceed university fees.

“I am in the middle of a storm now, but you can be sure I will stay the course,” she said at a recent press conference.

Mrs. Merkel’s Christian Democrats and their Social Democrat partners are now competing for votes by offering more help for families in the run-up to three state elections in the spring.

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More than 600,000 Italian newborns will receive a letter from Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in the next week welcoming them into the world as Italian citizens and telling their parents how to receive a 1,000 euro “baby bonus” from the state. Like Germany, Italy’s birthrate has plummeted.

Political opponents accuse Mr. Berlusconi of campaign trickery in the run-up to the April 9 elections, using the letter to evade campaign laws limiting his time on television.

“Best wishes for your arrival; do you know that the budget has put aside 1,000 euros for you?” Mr. Berlusconi writes in the letter sent to babies born in 2005.

He signs off: “Big Kiss, Silvio Berlusconi.”

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