By Matthew Funk
Germany: a nation of beer, bratwurst, and BMW’s. Dependant on the strong work ethic and vastness of its labor force, the largest economy of Europe certainly has a lot to offer the world in terms of goods and services. Over the past fifty years, however, this asset has been compromised by Germany’s steady decline in population. The statistics are startling: German mothers have an average of 1.37 children, a number drastically lower that the 2.1 children per mother necessary to sustain the population.
The German government, aware and fearing the continuation of this trend, has implemented measures to address the problem. The first, and perhaps most explicit is the “Elterngeld”, literally “Parent Money”, provided by the government in order to encourage fiscally-conscious German couples to conceive. While this could help tip the balance for families that are on the fence about whether or not they can afford to have a child, it probably will not create the radical societal shift that the Germans are looking for. Due to the fact that the subsidy value seems to be increasing every year (e.g. the maximum allowance nearly tripled from 7,200 Euros over two years in 2006 to 25,200 Euros, effective January 1, 2007), German families could even be delaying parenthood, expecting and waiting for a heftier sum in the future.
Another factor, which is becoming increasingly relevant in Germany, is the burgeoning immigrant population. The population of people with Turkish heritage in Germany stands at about four million people, half of which have yet to become full citizens. These families, coming to Germany in search of work and opportunity, do not have the same hesitation to procreate as their German peers, more often than not having multiple, if not many, children. However, because these families are so large and have such a strong cultural legacy, integration is usually a challenge, especially when the families live and work in mainly Turkish-speaking communities. But, as second or third generation Turkish immigrants begin to assimilate and native Germans start to accept this new multiculturalism, the immigrant population in Germany could help mitigate the impact of the birth deficit, bolster the work force, and mollify would-be security concerns. So, while this external source of population growth could help down the road, it merely represents a longer-term trend in human migration than an answer to Germany’s problem.
It seems that the most viable solution for Germany and her declining birthrate, though, lies across the Baltic Sea. Germany’s more homogeneous and smaller, yet comparable, Scandinavian neighbors average 2.0 children per mother or higher, 0.7 higher than in Germany. These countries, conscious of the slippery slope of a declining birthrate, have not sought to increase the birth rate, but rather to build a society that is based on gender equality. Using this as a model, the Germans could, theoretically, improve their increasingly dire situation. For, wouldn’t families in a society in which the women help the men with household income and the men help the women at home feel more comfortable and ready to have children? The statistics confirm this sentiment, as the probability of families having a second child rises from 51% to 81% when the father helps around the home (which is more likely if the father does not feel compelled to solely provide the household income). This, of course, goes against the traditional German “Familienbild”, or “Family Picture”, but it seems that change must not only be accepted, but welcomed if the Germans are to solve the problem of their dwindling birthrate.
But why the big fuss? The German economy is firmly embedded in the EU and diplomacy among European states has not been better in living memory. While it would be easy for Germany to accept this “worry-free” attitude, history tells us to be cautious. In a continent that has rarely gone one hundred, if not fifty, years without war, a large population is a must, not only to thrive economically, but also to survive. Because of this, Germany sees itself as slipping relative to other European countries such as Italy, Spain, France, and the UK, which had 1.1, 2.0, 3.4, and 4.1 more live births per one-thousand inhabitants in 2004, a trend which has only continued in the past six years.
So, only time will tell which, if any, of these phenomena, factors, or measures are successful. However, we know one thing for certain: if the Germans wish to continue producing the bounty of goods and services they provide Europe and the world at current levels and maintain an assured sense of geopolitical security, they will need a sturdy population to do so.
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