By Steffen Kröhnert and Samuel Skipper

After the collapse of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), a radical transformation of the natural and territorial population movement took place. Keywords for this development include a falling birth-rate, emigration and the ageing of population, all resulting from the process of adaptation to the generative structures of the Western model of society as well as from a failed economic upswing.

The former GDR pursued a pro-natalist demographic and family policy, whereas in the Federal Republic this was not considered necessary because of sufficient immigration levels. In the GDR's completely regulated housing market, the allocation of accommodation was strongly linked to the level of 'urgency', and thus, to the existence of children. Young families obtained government credits, which could be 'absolved' with children. The introduction of maternity leave made it possible for mothers with a second child to have a paid parental leave lasting one year. In the last year of its existence, the GDR had a total population of 16.7 million. According to the census bureau, at present (2008) there are only about 16.5 million people living in the new Bundesländer – this figure also includes the approximately two million inhabitants of West Berlin.

East-West Migration

The political system of the GDR intensely restricted migration movements. This affected both the emigration of GDR citizens and the immigration of foreigners, who represented a strikingly small part – only one per cent – of the total population in 1989. Nevertheless, the GDR had a negative migration balance during the entire time of its existence. The construction of the wall in 1961 constrained emigration to the Federal Republic but it could not completely hinder it. With the fall of the wall, a downright refugee movement took place from the regions of the former GDR. In 1989 and 1990 the number of East-West migrants reached, with almost 400.000 people each year, a dramatic level. Yet migration decreased in the following years and in 1996 and 1997 the East-West migration almost maintained a net balance with respectively only 14.000 and 13.000 people. Since then, however, emigration from the new Bundesländer has increased once again due to the absence of a self-supporting economic upswing and to a negative economic situation in East Germany, still present today. In 2001 the (e)migration balance in East Germany reached a new peak of 100.000 people. Shortly after, outflows fell back again but still continued. Overall a net emigration of 1.6 million people occurred in the Bundesländer of Eastern Germany between 1989 and 2005. That means that this region lost circa ten per cent of its inhabitants alone because people moved away.

Emigration is strongly age-selective, as East-West migration is characterised by people seeking jobs or apprenticeship places, including particularly the young, employable, well educated and potentially fertile age-groups. About 60 percent of the East-West migrants are aged below 30 years. A peculiarity of the migration between the East and the West of Germany is the disproportionately high percentage of young women who emigrate from the new Bundesländer. For women from Eastern Germany employment is of high significance, mostly due to the high employment levels for women in the GDR (over 80 percent). If during the 1990s the main reason for the increased emigration was high unemployment among women, today there is increasing evidence that the higher general education of women is responsible for the rising female mobility.

For many regions of the new Länder the consequences of this migration are ageing, a shortage of women and a concentration of poorly qualified people. Since such a development of the demographic structure does not appear to be reversible in the long term, it additionally worsens the forecast for the future economic development of the new Bundesländer.

Net migration of new and old Bundesländer from 1991 to 2008*

*Since 2001 excluding East Berlin (Source: Statistisches Bundesamt).

Development of the Birth Rates

The development of fertility in East Germany, at least intermittently, was not less drastic than it was for migration. With 1.6 children per women (1989), the total fertility (TFR) was considerably higher in the GDR than in the Federal Republic (1.3). That resulted not only from the pro-natalist family policy but also from the limited biographical options in the political system of the GDR, which encouraged frequent births at an early age. Moreover, there was a better structural compatibility in the GDR between children and employment. For this reason, and also because of the permanent labour deficit in the GDR, there were no disadvantages for mothers who were willing to work. On the contrary, government measures like the comprehensive, free day care (nursery schools, kindergartens, after-school care clubs) but also special benefits (additional leave, shorter weekly working hours) aimed to achieve the labour participation of women with children.

Immediately after reunification the total fertility rate fell dramatically and in 1994 it dropped to 0.77 – the lowest figure ever measured. The interaction of a set of different factors is viewed by demographers as the cause for this drastic change. The fall of the wall led to a state of 'demographic shock': a reduction of all generative acts (births, marriages, divorces) as a direct result of the social upheaval. At the same time, by adopting the social system of Western Germany, Eastern Germans also adjusted to its generative structures: the period of education and training of young people augmented, the compatibility of family and career became more difficult and the biographic options for citizens evolved. Hence, the average age at first birth increased to that of Western German women. In 1989 the average age of women in the GDR at first birth was 22.9, in the Federal Republic it was 26.8. Until 1995 the age of women at first birth had risen again to 28.2 years in the Western part of Germany, and it had already reached 26.9 years in East Germany. The age limit between adaptation and 'shock reaction' was 25 years. Younger women embraced Western family planning patterns and had their first child at a later stage of life. Women over the age of 25, who mostly had had their first child prior to the fall of the wall, often decided not to opt for a second child. This virtually led to a 'gap of births' around the year 1994.

Birth rates in the new Bundesländer (excluding Berlin) from 1980 to 2008

(Source: Statistisches Bundesamt)

Since 1994, following the previously described delay effect, fertility in East Germany has been on the rise again. In 2008 the total fertility rates of East (1.40) and West Germany (1.37) differed only marginally. Yet since 1989 a high number of women in fertile age have left East Germany, and only a small number of birth cohorts born in the years following German reunification will be old enough to become parents in the next ten years. This means that even with an equal fertility rate, the number of newborn babies in relation to the total population is considerably lower than in Western Germany.

Marriage Patterns

Propensity towards marriage was stronger in the GDR than in the Federal Republic, and people engaged in marriage at a much earlier stage. The number of first marriages in East Germany fell abruptly at the beginning of the 1990s, but has been rising again since 1992, almost reaching the levels recorded in West Germany in 2005. In the new Bundesländer the average age of women at first marriage, which was 23.3 years in 1990 and thus two years below the average age in West Germany, soared until 2004 by 5.5 years. The collective figure on first marriages results from the sum of all age-specific first marriage figures, which in turn represent the percentage of people of each age cohort that marries during an indicated year. The interpretation of the collective figure of fist marriages as "the percentage of people who marry at least once before the age of 50" is misleading because this figure is also influenced by the change of the age of marriage or by temporary impacts on the marriage patterns.

From 1990 until 2000 the age of single women marrying for the first time rose from 23.7 to 28 years in East Germany, from 25.9 to 28.5 years in West Germany. There is still a vast difference between East and West Germany in the percentage of children born to unmarried parents. In Western Germany the traditional value of marrying before having children apparently continues to play an important role – also as a financial protection for the mothers who are often forced to reduce their working hours or refrain from working altogether. In East Germany by contrast it was not unusual, long before 1989, to stay unmarried before having a child, as the state provided unmarried mothers with a remarkable social support and marriage was financially irrelevant, due to the high employment rate of women. Already in 1990, 35 percent of children from East Germany were born to unmarried parents (West Germany: 10.5 percent). Until 2008, this figure increased up to 61 percent in the Eastern part of Germany while in West Germany it rose only to 26 percent. This highlights the different levels of social acceptance of children of unmarried parents.

Development of Life Expectancy and Mortality

Life expectancy is mainly determined by the life style of people, the level of medical care and medical progress. In the new Länder life expectancy at birth in 1991 was for men three years and for women two years lower than the life expectancy in West Germany. After reunification a rapid catching-up process occurred: according to the demographic life tables, in 2006/2008 life expectancy for women from East Germany lied at 82.2 years and life expectancy for men stood at 76.0, respectively 0.3 and 1.3 years below the West German level. The reason for this rapid rise in life expectancy is the improved medical care in the new Länder. Thus, cardiovascular disease mortality was reduced by more than a fifth. Mortality caused by heart diseases could be prevented more effectively with the medical standard of West Germany.

Regional Development

If initially the transformation process described above concerned East Germany as a whole, by now a regional differentiation can be noticed. The cities of the region between Jena, Erfurt and Eisenach are to a certain extent regaining inhabitants and attracting the declining number of young people with the help of educational institutions. However, the urban regions of East Germany are stabilizing at the expense of the rural and peripheral areas. Infrastructure in sparsely populated areas will in the future be increasingly reduced as a result of high costs and a falling number of users. Opportunities for employment will thus cease almost completely. In the future less people than in the past will live in East Germany and they will predominantly settle in urban centres.

Demographic development in various East German cities since 1989

(Source: Statistisches Bundesamt)


Even though demographic indicators like fertility, life expectancy and marriage patterns of the new Bundesländer are gradually converging to those recorded in West Germany, the past 20 years have left deep traces, including a clear decline of the total population and a shift in the age structure: The population in East Germany in 1989 was much younger than in West Germany: 25.5 per cent of the total population were under the age of 20. Until 2008, as a result of sinking birth rates and emigration the amount dropped to 15.5 per cent, well below the Western German level (19.9 per cent). The working age population (20 to 59 years) diminished by 445.000. At the same time the percentage of over 60-year-old people rose by almost half a million. In fact the upcoming process of demographic ageing and shrinking that will affect Germany as a whole is already taking place in fast motion in East Germany. In the years to come the dwindling number of birth cohorts will reach working age. That means, on the one hand, that pressure on the East German labour market will diminish significantly. On the other hand there is the risk that the regional economy will not be able to recruit enough qualified staff to sustain the small number of trainees and students, and that the new Bundesländer will become an even less attractive business location. Today East Germany has turned into a testing ground for the country as a whole for the handling of the upcoming decline in and ageing of population.

Literature / Links

Dobritz, Jürgen (1997): Der demographische Wandel in Ostdeutschland – Verlauf und Erklärungsansätze. In: Zeitschrift für Bevölkerungswissenschaft (22), 239-268.

Federal Institute for Population Research(2006): Die demografische Lage 2006 in Deutschland. www.bib-demografie.de

Keim, Karl-Dieter: Stadtumbau Ost – eine Herausforderung an die Politik zur Regenerierung der ostdeutschen Städte. Vortrag an der FH Potsdam vom 14.5.2002.

Kröhnert, Steffen/ Medicus, Franziska/ Klingholz, Reiner (2006): Die demografische Lage der Nation. Wie zukunftsfähig sind Deutschlands Regionen? München.

Schulz, Erika (2000): Transformation prägt Bevölkerungsentwicklung in Deutschland. In: Vierteljahreshefte zur Wirtschaftsforschung (69), 249-271.

Statistisches Bundesamt (2007): Statistisches Jahrbuch 2007, Wiesbaden. www.destatis.de


last update: September 2010

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