Bertrand Benoit, MSNBC, July 14, 2007
A pregnant woman is a rare sight on German city streets. But sit at a café terrace on Düsseldorf’s Königsallee, the city’s main shopping artery, and you will probably spot several swollen bellies.
Statisticians in this prosperous city have been scratching their heads lately over figures that suggest Germans, among the most barren of western Europeans, are rediscovering the joys of procreation.
In the first quarter of 2007, nearly 15 per cent more babies were born in Düsseldorf than in the same period last year. The Kaiserwerther Diakonie, one of the city’s three large hospitals, reported a rise of more than 16 per cent in births in the first half of the year.
This and increases seen in other large cities from affluent Munich to down-at-heel Berlin have triggered ecstatic reports, with newspaper Die Welt predicting “a new baby boom”.
The excitement is understandable. Germany not only pioneered Europe’s downward turn in fertility rates 30 years ago but also has among the continent’s lowest birth rates at 1.34 children per woman and its population is shrinking.
Demography experts warn that it could take months, even years, to determine whether the current uptick in childbirth is a statistical anomaly or if something more fundamental is happening. Yet this has not prevented them from speculating about the factors behind the surge.
One popular explanation lies in the country’s powerful economic recovery. The link between income expectation and fertility has been generally accepted since the 1980s, when Richard Easterlin, an economist at the University of Southern California, first highlighted the correlation.
Another possible factor lies in policy. Manfred Golschinski, the head of Düsseldorf’s statistical office, points to the municipality’s family-friendly measures: Düsseldorf has had a budget surplus for the past seven years and has invested heavily in renovating schools and building kindergartens.
Then there is Elterngeld, a new parental allowance. Introduced nationwide in January and modelled on Scandinavian policies, the benefit entitles every new parent to a state allowance worth 67 per cent of their salary if they stop working for a year after having a child.
But more crucial was the radical—and providential—change of mind it represented in the way Germans and their political leaders perceive the economic role of women, he says.
German women’s participation in the labour force, though higher than the European average, falls precipitously after they become mothers. This is partly explained by the country’s lack of childcare facilities, which makes it hard for women to reconcile work and family.
“But this is also a legacy of our highly politicised vision of women’s role in society, which is itself a leftover from our fascist past,” says Mr Klingholz. “We always had a polarisation between conservatives who think a woman’s place is at home and leftwingers who look down on childbearing.”
Elterngeld, he says, was a decisive step “because it is about making it easier for a woman to combine work and family, which every demographically successful society tells us is the key to higher birth rates.”