Are the Germans dying out?

Unlike their European neighbors, Germans aren't having very many kids.


Sarah Elizabeth Richards
February 16, 2006 10:30PM (UTC)

Here's some unsettling news for anyone hoping to go into the baby lederhosen business: The Economist reports that fertility rates in Germany are the lowest they've been in years, with some 30 percent of German women choosing not to procreate, according to recent European Union estimates. (You can find more Broadsheet coverage of the issue here.) For years now, we've been hearing that European populations are in danger of dying out as more women delay or forgo childbirth. But unlike other countries where fertility rates are rebounding, many German women don't appear to want to pop out an Anna or Hans anytime soon.

The reasons given are familiar, including poor child care and inflexible labor laws. (Frauen, your American sisters feel your pain!) But the Economist argues that the German situation is noteworthy because the country has been dealing with low fertility rates for some time. In northern and western European countries, baby-making rates fell in the 1960s but have returned to replacement levels (roughly 2.1 births per women). And southern and eastern European nations have seen rates fall only recently, and some demographers predict they will rise again soon. German rates, however, fell below two in 1971 and remain at 1.3, which prompts the question: Could birthrates in Germany be falling simply because some Europeans -- like some Americans -- just don't want kids? It sure looks that way. The Economist cites research from the Vienna Institute of Demography that a quarter of young German men and a fifth of young German women say they have no intention of ever having children.

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Reactions to this topic usually range from the nostalgic (Oh, our motherland!) to the realistic (Oh, our pensions!) to the xenophobic (Oh, the immigrants are the only ones having babies!). But the Economist has an air of somber resignation. Parts of Europe, then, may be entering a new demographic trap. People restrict family size from choice.

This failure to reproduce may not be an indictment of the German state, after all -- as is frequently argued. Rather, it may simply be a reflection that Germans have a lot of other options in their lives. For example, they're known for earning lengthy university degrees and taking a lot of trips. (You can't spill a Heineken in any vacation resort in the world without splashing a German.) That's not necessarily a bad thing. And despite the hand-wringing, Germany isn't going to disappear or have to merge with a Benelux neighbor any time soon. It likely will have to welcome more foreign-born workers, meaning that Anna and Hans may have to play with Ahmed and Yasmeen. And that's not necessarily a bad thing, either.


Sarah Elizabeth Richards

Sarah Elizabeth Richards is a journalist based in New York. She can be reached at sarah@saraherichards.com.

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