Germany faces up to its kinder surprise


Dwindling birth rates mean Germany faces a demographic time bomb, while Ireland is enjoying a baby boom that could prove crucial, writes RONAN McGREEVY

IT IS UNDERSTANDABLE at a time when much of Europe is descending into economic chaos and despair that many nations look with envy at Germany.

Strong, sensible Germany, the backstop of our financial bailout, where its people husbanded their resources while we squandered ours, selling overpriced houses to each other.

The Germans have been reaping the benefits of their caution while we have been rueing our profligate ways. Their immediate economic prospects look good, while ours look like nothing other than hard slog.

Last week Eurostat, the European Commission’s number-crunching arm, produced its annual population statistics. Among the welter of figures, one fact stood out. The Irish, broke and traumatised as we are by the economic collapse, are the champion breeders of Europe, producing almost twice as many babies per head of population as prosperous, confident Germany, which produces the least.

The Irish birth rate of 16.5 babies per 1,000 of the population is almost twice that of Germany, where the rate is 8.3 per 1,000. In fact, the German birth rate is so low that both France and the UK, which have substantially smaller populations, produced more children last year.

It has long been an established paradox of demographics that those who can afford children the most are the ones who have the fewest. The most fertile countries in the world are also among the most troubled, including such places as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan and Chad.

The Germans take it to another extreme. Not only is the birth rate the lowest in Europe, but the fertility rate (the number of children per adult woman) is among the lowest, at 1.36. The Irish fertility rate is also the highest in Europe, at 2.07.

The Germans may be proud of their booming economy, but they are storing up serious problems for themselves for the future.

Last week, Destatis, the German equivalent of the Central Statistics Office, revealed that there were 2.1 million fewer children in Germany last year than there were 10 years ago. The number fell from 15.2 million to 13.1 million.

That is only the start of the country’s problems, however. A recent report by Destatis estimates that the population of Germany could fall from 82 million today to 65 million by 2060. If it does, Germany will no longer be Europe’s most populous country, that will be either France or the UK.

By 2060, Destatis says there will be nearly as many people over 80 as there are under 20. The number of people aged 70 is expected to be twice the number of newborn children. One-third of the population will be pensioners (in Ireland it is currently 11 per cent). It will be a country of old men and women.

This has serious consequences for Germany’s generous welfare state with the dependency population increasing as the working population shrinks.

Traditionally, Germany has relied on immigrants to bolster its flagging population but this has created tensions and won’t, in itself, halt depopulation.

Ireland, on the other hand, has an enviable demographic profile despite the state of the economy. “Countries like Germany can only wish to have our demographic profile,” says Dr Pete Lunn of the Economic and Social Research Institute.

“Our birth rate is really good news for this country. Children are a burden on the state initially, but education is an investment. You will eventually get a return for at least 40 years. You don’t worry about the burden of children compared to the huge burden of having so many older people.”

Ireland’s current baby boom is the result of a previous one in the late 1970s. According to Dr Lunn, fertility rates in Europe started to tail off dramatically in the 1950s and 1960s. They did not do so in Ireland, however, until the 1980s. (At the start of the 1980s, the average Irish woman was still having more than three children).

The result of the baby boom in the 1970s and the early 1980s means there have never been so many women of child-bearing age alive in the history of the State, with a million women aged between 15 and 45, according to the Central Statistics Office. There has also been an influx of women of child-bearing age from overseas.

Though that offers an explanation for the birth rate, it does not explain the fertility rate, which can be attributed more to cultural factors.

Dr Lunn says that Catholicism is not a particularly important factor and that nominally Roman Catholic countries, such as Italy, Portugal and Malta, have among the lowest fertility rates in Europe.

Economist Dr Finola Kennedy, who wrote Cottage to Creche: Family Change in Ireland about the changing structure of the family, says that ultimately it is down to priorities when people have so many choices.

“It is a question of how much we love children and how much we want them and what sacrifices we are willing to make,” she says.

In Germany, there are many reasons cited for the low birth and fertility rates there. Some blame the absence of sufficient places in kindergartens, the early school finishing times, society’s disapproval of mothers working outside the home and the late entry into the labour market because of long years spent at university.

There is even a word for it in German: Kinderentwöhnt. Literally translated, it means “weaned off children” but it is used to describe the country’s collective indifference to youngsters.

Michael Kruse of the Kinderhilfswerk charity (Children’s Charity of Germany) says the German aversion to having children is down to angst, a German word that needs no translation and that sums up an attitude of pessimism and anxiety about the future

“People worry about their economic future and they worry about the future of the German economy. I wish that people did not always put the economy first,” he said.

Kruse further explains that local authorities in Germany have had to classify the noise children make in kindergartens as “noise one must tolerate living in a built-up area”. The authorities did this because many kindergartens had been forced to move premises following complaints by residents.

One expatriate mother of Irish extraction, who is expecting her second child in Germany, said people there have a fundamentally different attitude to having children.

“The Germans analyse whether they should have children much more than we do,” she says. “For example, [they ask themselves] how much will they cost? How much are the university fees? Can I afford it? Whereas our attitude is, ‘Let’s go for it, we’ll manage somehow’.

“Maybe it’s because the Germans have reached quite a good level of prosperity, so whether to have a child and let their standard of living slip a bit suddenly becomes a difficult decision [if they have to] downgrade the posh Mercedes and maybe move out of the posh penthouse apartment to the suburbs.”