German Exodus Gathers Pace

Bertrand Benoit, Financial Times (UK), September 1, 2006

The exodus of Germans being lured away from home is greater today than at any time since statisticians began collecting figures about population movements in the 1950s.

Last year, for the first time since 1968, more people left Germany than arrived, according to Destatis, the federal statistical office. It estimates that 144,815 Germans left the country last year because of high unemployment, better opportunities or, in some cases, tax.

Germany has among the lowest birth rates in Europe and its population is shrinking, prompting some experts to warn of the negative impact of the departures on the country’s economy.

German demographers were shocked in 1987 when the latest census put the population at 82.4m—1.3m lower than projected. But a more unpleasant surprise could be in store for Germans as work for the next census gets under way this week. The previous emigration record of 1956 was breached in 1994 and, after several years of decline, the outflow began rising again in 2001, and continued to rise up to 2004, although 2005’s figure of 144,815 was slightly down on the year before.

“There has definitely been an increase [in German emigration] over the past two to three years,” said Christina Busch at the Raphael-Werke, an organisation that counsels would-be emigrants. “What worries me is that 99.9 per cent of those I see have qualifications. Many have children. Some even have good jobs. And most want a clean break—they do not intend to come back.”

Architects, engineers, lorry drivers, scientists and social workers are leaving in droves, according to figures. The outflow of doctors towards Scandinavia is such that the medical faculty of Erlangen University recently started offering Swedish courses to its students.

Until recently, the assumption was that demographic shrinkage would help alleviate high unemployment. In a recent study, however, the IAB research institute, part of the Federal Labour Agency, concluded: “Without new policies, no significant decline in unemployment can be expected [before 2020].”

The reason is the deepening mismatch between demand and supply on the labour market as the best-qualified emigrate, demand for untrained workers decreases and the quality of education stagnates. For former East Germany, the outlook is particularly grim. Another IAB study estimates the region’s population will drop from 15m to 9m by 2050.


“I’ve made quite a few good decisions in my life,” says Jaye Muller. “But a key one was definitely to leave Germany.”

Not all Germans who bid their homeland farewell go on to become pop stars or to float their internet companies on Nasdaq—Mr Muller did both and more since leaving east Berlin as a penniless 20-year-old in 1990—yet an increasing number are trying.

Whether the cause is high unemployment or the promise of better opportunities—or, for some, that of lower taxes—Germans are being lured away from home in greater numbers today than at any time since statisticians began collecting figures about population movements in the 1950s.

Given the country’s worrying demographic trends—Germany has among the lowest birth rates in Europe and its population is shrinking—experts are observing the departures with some alarm as they begin to ponder their impact on the country’s economy.

Destatis, the federal statistical office, estimates that 144,815 Germans left the country last year. Though this marked a slight decrease from 2004, it was the first time that more had left the country than returned since 1968.

Since these figures reflect only those who notify the authorities, and since ethnic German immigrants from the former Soviet Union count as returnees, Constanze Quiatkowski of Destatis says the actual number should be larger.

German demographic experts were shocked in 1987 when the latest census put the population at 82.4m—1.3m lower than they had projected. An even worse surprise could be in store when the next census is conducted in 2010-2011.

“There has definitely been an increase over the past two to three years,” says Christina Busch at the Raphael-Werke, a charity that counsels would-be emigrants. “What worries me is that 99.9 per cent of those I see have qualifications. Many have children. Some even have good jobs. And most want a clean break—they do not intend to come back.”

Architects, engineers, truck drivers, scientists, and social workers are leaving in droves. The outflow of doctors towards Scandinavia is such that the medical faculty of Erlangen University recently started offering Swedish courses to its students.

The trend has been noticeable for some time. The previous emigration record of 1956 was breached for the first time in 1994 and after several years of decline the outflow began rising again in 2001, as it has done every year since.

Yet Klaus Bade, director of the Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Studies, says nobody could predict the current momentum. The departures, compounded by a steady decline in foreign immigration, pose a formidable challenge to Germany’s welfare system.

Today, only 26m people hold jobs that carry full social security entitlements. Put differently, the burden of financing the welfare state is borne by fewer than one in three Germans, while 32m depend on the system for their living.

Germany’s ageing population means its welfare state, if unreformed, faces certain financial collapse. What the country’s failure to retain talent means is that this collapse is approaching faster than previously expected.

Also new is the concern about what emigration could do to the labour market. Until recently, the assumption was that demographic shrinkage would help alleviate high unemployment.

In a recent study, however, the IAB research institute, part of the Federal Labour Agency, concluded: “Without new policies, no significant decline in unemployment can be expected [before 2020].”

The reason is the deepening mismatch between demand and supply on the labour market as the best-qualified emigrate, demand for untrained workers decreases, and the quality of education stagnates.

Former East Germany, in particular, faces devastation. Another IAB study estimates that the region’s population will drop from 15m to 9m between now and 2050 while its working population will halve.

In some quarters, the scarcity of workers is already being felt. A poll by the Labour Agency showed 13 per cent of vacancies could not be filled in Germany last year despite record unemployment, because of applicants’ insufficient qualifications.

Mr Muller, who has lived in Paris and New York and is now settled in London, says he does “not feel any compulsion to go back”.

Topics:

Share This

We welcome comments that add information or perspective, and we encourage polite debate. If you log in with a social media account, your comment should appear immediately. If you prefer to remain anonymous, you may comment as a guest, using a name and an e-mail address of convenience. Your comment will be moderated.

Comments are closed.