Saturday, July 14, 2007

Baby Boom Times Return For Germany

The Financial Times on Germany 15

Baby boom times return for Germany

By Bertrand Benoit

Published: July 13 2007 21:33 | Last updated: July 13 2007 21:33

A pregnant woman is a rare sight on German city streets. But sit at a café terrace on Düsseldorf’s Königsallee, the city’s main shopping artery, and you will probably spot several swollen bellies.

Statisticians in this prosperous city have been scratching their heads lately over figures that suggest Germans, among the most barren of western Europeans, are rediscovering the joys of procreation.

In the first quarter of 2007, nearly 15 per cent more babies were born in Düsseldorf than in the same period last year. The Kaiserwerther Diakonie, one of the city’s three large hospitals, reported a rise of more than 16 per cent in births in the first half of the year.

This and increases seen in other large cities from affluent Munich to down-at-heel Berlin have triggered ecstatic reports, with newspaper Die Welt predicting “a new baby boom”.

The excitement is understandable. Germany not only pioneered Europe’s downward turn in fertility rates 30 years ago but also has among the continent’s lowest birth rates at 1.34 children per woman and its population is shrinking.

Germany’s demographics have spawned their own branch of non-fiction literature specialising in doomsday predictions about the collapse of the country’s welfare state and medical system. Opinion polls show few young people think they can survive in old age on the basic state pension.

“German-speaking countries are unique in having a full generation that has come of age seeing childbearing as abnormal,” says Wolfgang Lutz, the director of the Vienna Institute of Demography. “This has affected the psychology, with a third of young men now saying they never want to have children.”

Demography experts warn that it could take months, even years, to determine whether the current uptick in childbirth is a statistical anomaly or if something more fundamental is happening. Yet this has not prevented them from speculating about the factors behind the surge.

One popular explanation lies in the country’s powerful economic recovery. The link between income expectation and fertility has been generally accepted since the 1980s, when Richard Easterlin, an economist at the University of Southern California, first highlighted the correlation.

“The people definitely feel better. There is more optimism,” says Björn Lampe, superintendent of the Florence Nightingale gynaecology and maternity clinic at the Kaiserwerther Diakonie.

An economic powerhouse at the heart of Germany’s industrial rustbelt, the city has long been a magnet for young families, even in more difficult times. Local birth rates have slowly but steadily increased every year since 2000 and it is now benefiting over-proportionally from the rebound.

Another possible factor lies in policy. Manfred Golschinski, the head of Düsseldorf’s statistical office, points to the municipality’s family-friendly measures: Düsseldorf has had a budget surplus for the past seven years and has invested heavily in renovating schools and building kindergartens.

Then there is Elterngeld, a new parental allowance. Introduced nationwide in January and modelled on Scandinavian policies, the benefit entitles every new parent to a state allowance worth 67 per cent of their salary if they stop working for a year after having a child.

“The experience of Scandinavian countries, which introduced such benefits in the 1970s, clearly showed a positive impact,” says Gerda Neyer, the head of the laboratory on population and policies at the Max Planck Institute for Demography in Rostock.

Drawing lessons from Scandinavia, a region with some of the highest fertility rates in Europe, was good practice, says Reiner Klingholz, the head of the Berlin Institute for Population and Development.

But more crucial was the radical – and providential – change of mind it represented in the way Germans and their political leaders perceive the economic role of women, he says.

German women’s participation in the labour force, though higher than the European average, falls precipitously after they become mothers. This is partly explained by the country’s lack of childcare facilities, which makes it hard for women to reconcile work and family.

“But this is also a legacy of our highly politicised vision of women’s role in society, which is itself a leftover from our fascist past,” says Mr Klingholz. “We always had a polarisation between conservatives who think a woman’s place is at home and leftwingers who look down on childbearing.”

Elterngeld, he says, was a decisive step “because it is about making it easier for a woman to combine work and family, which every demographically successful society tells us is the key to higher birth rates.”

A senior civil servant involved in drafting the law says the shift took place about three years ago when it dawned on large segments of the conservative electorate that keeping women behind the stove was a sure recipe for gradual extinction.

“Ask young mothers now and most will tell you they want to work part-time,” he says. “The ideology has gone now and we have a consensus that mothers – and fathers – should be given the choice as to how best to raise their children.”

Back at the Diakonie, Ulrike Ulrich, a beaming 39-year-old fashion executive, could not agree more. “I might slow down a bit now,” she says, staring lovingly at Mats, her two-day-old son. “But I can’t ever picture myself not working at all.”

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