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Home >> Life
UPDATED: 08:50, January 20, 2006
German leaders wake up to shrinking population
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Are Germans an endangered species?

Stunning as it may seem, a steep decline in the German population since 1972 and fears the trend will gain pace have led demographers to warn of unsettling consequences.

The number of Germans has declined by 3.2 million the population of Berlin over the last 30 years but demographers' concerns have mostly been ignored until now in a country scarred by the Nazis' nefarious procreation pressures.

German leaders have now lifted the birth rate to the top of the political agenda for the first time since the Nazi era, and the two ruling parties are trying to outdo each other with pro-family measures.

"Germans are at risk of dying out if the trend continues," said Harald Michel, managing director of the Institute for Applied Demography. He fears the German population could shrink from 75 million to 50 million by 2050 and further after that.

"The birth rates have been below the replacement rate for 35 years a lethal development," he added. "Germans could become an 'endangered people'. It's hypothetical now but we may have to think about 'the last German' at some point. The problem is compounded each generation. Children not born 30 years ago obviously aren't there to have children now."

Silent shrinking

Germans have long had one of the lowest birth rates in the European Union at 1.3 children per woman far below the "replacement rate" of 2.1 needed to keep the population stable and about half the rate of 40 years ago.

More than 30 per cent of east and west Germans born from 1960 to 1967 will remain childless. Among Germans with higher education, the childless rate is even higher at 38 per cent.

"Each generation is being reduced by about a third," said Norbert Walter, chief economist at Deutsche Bank.

"The consequences are foreseeable," he added, referring to the financial havoc a shrinking population is causing in areas ranging from the increasingly underfunded state pension system to weak consumer spending and sagging property values.

"I think it's an exaggeration to talk about Germans becoming 'extinct'. But when a country that once had more than 80 million people ends up with only 60 million at some point down the road, well, that will be a completely different country then."

The silent shrinking has so far been masked by immigrants.

But Germany's anaemic economy is no longer a magnet and the total population, which includes 7 million foreigners, has actually declined in recent years from a peak of 82,536,680 in 2002 to 82,500,849 in 2004.

Nazi promotions, present taboo

Low birth rates plague other nations like Italy, Russia and Japan where the Yomiuri daily said last month that the average number of children a woman bears in her lifetime fell to a record low in 2005.

But demographers say Germany is worse off because the problem has been ignored for so long. In other leading industrial nations like the United States, Britain and France, birth rates are much closer to the replacement rate.

"Why did we show so little interest the last 40 years as we went from a republic rich with children to one with a children shortage?" former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder asked last year.

Now, interest has revived. Angela Merkel's government formed late last year recently agreed to give new mothers generous one-year wage replacement subsidies. Plans to eliminate fees for kindergarten are also being floated.

"It's the first time since 1945 that a German Government has come out of the closet about population policy," wrote the Berliner Zeitung newspaper. "Family policy is suddenly chic."

Despite state financial support of 150 billion euros a year for child support programmes including monthly subsidies of 154 euros per child, many Germans are reluctant to start families due to a generally frosty attitude to children.

Parents with young children are often made to feel unwelcome in restaurants, employers rarely make arrangements for workers with small children, pre-school care in some places is hard to find and fees far exceed costs for university. Many schools also close at noon, making it difficult for working parents.

"It's an extremely complex issue," said Walter. "It's a delicate topic and it's going to remain sensitive in Germany where it can't be handled as it might in a normal country."

Although it was 60 years ago, Nazi methods to encourage women to have children to bolster Hitler's future armies weigh on the collective consciousness.

The Nazis gave women a "Mutterkreuz," or "mother's cross of honour," and a certificate signed by Hitler thanking them "in the name of the German people."

A bronze "Mutterkreuz" went to women with four to five children, silver for six to seven and gold for eight or more.

"That history is still playing a role in Germany," said Michel. "Population policy was long a taboo topic."

Michel said he did not believe the sudden talk of greater state support for child care or a host of other state plans to boost the birth rate will change very much.

"We're on a downward trend; it cannot be stopped," he said. "We should come to terms with a shrinking German population."

( 1 euro = US$1.21)

Source: China Daily

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