Anyone but Wolfgang
Blog Housekeeping

Why Germany has a Low Birth Rate

Germany's birth rate is too low to sustain its current population levels, and this is going to cause increasing problems for it. The new Minister for Families, Ursula von der Leyen, a woman who has seven children herself, thinks the answer is to shower yet more money (German) on Germans who have children, this time in the form of more tax breaks and "parent-money," which adds to the "child-money" Germans already get. Her proposals, as well as her person, are controversial, for reasons I won't get into.

The Allensbach institute, on of the principal public-opinion research institutes in Germany, recently asked Germans of child-bearing age why they aren't having children.  Here are some of the reasons (German):

  1. A child would be too much of a financial burden (47%)
  2. I'm still too young for that (47%)
  3. My career plans would be hard to fulfill with a child (37%)
  4. I haven't yet found the right partner (28%)
  5. I want to have the maximum amount of freedom, not to have to limit myself (27%)
  6. I have many interests that would be hard to reconcile with having a child (27%)
  7. Children are hard to raise; I am not sure I have the strength and nerves for that (27%)
  8. I want to be as independent as possible (26%)
  9. I would then have less time for friends (19%)
  10. I don't know if my relationship will stay together (17%)
  11. I or my partner would be at a career disadvantage if we had a child (16%)

Not a very reassuring picture because, as the Institute points out, there is not much the government can do about a lot of these things. Of course, the government can reduce the financial burden yet further, and try to make it easier to integrate career and family. However, it's hard to see how.

I don't think people see having a child as a financial burden because the government doesn't give them enough money. Germany, like most European nations, showers parents with tax breaks and subsidies, but still has a much lower birth rate than countries -- such as the United States -- that give parents more limited financial help.

The reason singles think children are too expensive is because of the underlying economic malaise and feelings of insecurity. That is, even after the government bonuses and tax breaks, people think they don't make enough money or have enough job security to start a family. As for the career issue, I hear this from many women, and there's probably something to it. But there are already relatively good legal protections in Germany for women who get pregnant on the job, and the main ways of significantly strenghthening these protections -- such as tough anti-discrimination laws -- would be controversial.

The research I've read indicates that people are more likely to have children when they are bound into tight family structures, strongly religious, and have an optimistic, forward-looking attitude toward their lives and their societies. In most countries, people know well that having children means huge career sacrifices and costs tons of time and money, but they do it anyway (whether because of social expectations or strong drives), without expecting any reward from the government.  That's why I can't see how tinkering around the edges of German government policy is going to accomplish much; it cannot change these broad cultural factors.