Even though birth rates dropped in Germany in 2008, Germans tend to have more children than before – especially in the eastern part of the country.
by Iris Hoßmann, Steffen Kröhnert and Reiner Klingholz
This paper was sponsored by the Robert Bosch Foundation.
The new direction taken by German family policy, including the establishment of the so-called 'Elterngeld' (parental allowance), is probably a reason for the slight increase in fertility.
Following many years of low and even declining fertility rates, Germans have been demonstrating a renewed willingness to bear children since 2007. This development has been accompanied by the introduction of child support ("Elterngeld"). Urban regions and the new federal states in eastern Germany have particularly benefited from marginally higher birth rates. A new discussion paper by the Berlin Institute for Population and Development describes this relation by analysing trends in the average number of children per woman and the total number of births in recent decades. The paper "Small Successes" concludes that Germany’s new family policy is a step into the right direction.
After the baby boom of the 1960s, the year 1971 marked the end of an era, with more than one million babies being born in Germany for the last time. Since then, the number of births has fallen, reaching its historical low of 672,724 newborns in 2006. This trend seemed to have halted temporarily in 2007, when the Federal Office for Statistics announced a 10,000 rise in births over the previous year. Moreover, for the first time in seven years, the average number of children born per woman (total fertility rate) had increased significantly – from 1.33 in 2006 to 1.37 a year later. But in 2008, the following year, the number of newborn babies had subsided again – to 8,000 births less than in 2007. Could the new child support payments have been no more than a costly flash in the pan?
Not really. There is a different reason for the shrinking number of newborns: The so-called Baby-Boom generation, which entered the world in 1955, is gradually leaving child-bearing age. The number of potential mothers has therefore been declining for years. As a consequence, the number of newborns will decrease annually even if fertility levels remain constant. Given this fact, the 2007 number was in fact indicative of increasing fertility. Thus even the slight dip in the 2008 birth rate cannot be attributed to decreasing fertility levels.
As the requisite data has not been released by the relevant agencies, it is impossible to calculate the actual total fertility rate for the year 2008. For this reason, the rate had to be determined by reference to another indicator: the number of babies born to 1,000 women of child-bearing age (15 to 44). In 2007, there were 15,881,000 women of child-bearing age. The resulting rate was 43.1 children per 1,000 women – compared to 41.7 children in 2006, which was the year before the introduction of the parental allowance. On the assumption that the number of women aged 14 to 43 in 2007 equalled the number of women aged 15 to 44 in 2008, the group of women of child-bearing age had shrunk to 15,571,000 in 2008. However, the number of births per 1,000 women of child-bearing age continued to increase to a rate of 43.3 in 2008. This would mean that the possible effect of the child support had shown no sign of slackening in 2008.
While the new family policy’s success has not been proven statistically, it is all but impossible to interpret the figures differently. Still, the outcome is disillusioning when compared to the figures for France and Sweden – nations that traditionally have lots of children. Nevertheless, the regional dimension is remarkable, speaking volumes about the effectiveness of the child support payments.
After East Germany collapsed in 1989, the new states in the eastern part of the country experienced a massive decline in birth rates. They bottomed out in 1994 with an average of 0.77 children per woman. Faced with economic uncertainty after the fall of communism, East German couples decided not to start families. At the same time, women in the western German states gave birth to an average of 1.4 children. However, this figure obscures a considerable degree of regional diversity. Some counties boasted fertility rates as high as 1.6 while others failed to even pass the 1.2 children mark.
Convergence in Eastern and Western German Regions
Comparisons of the current distribution of fertility rates in Germany (2007) no longer reveal any significant differences between east and west. Almost all the western German counties that had previously boasted high fertility rates experienced sharp declines – with some falling as low as the national average. By contrast, the eastern German regions have caught up. Nowadays, women there give birth to roughly as many children as their neighbours in the west. This catch-up effect provisionally peaked in 2007.
The Berlin Institute explains this convergence as follows. On the one hand, eastern German regions are evidently making up for the extremely low fertility rates of the 1990s – deferred desires for children have now been realised. On the other, traditional gender roles – husband at work, wife at home – seem to be relaxing in western Germany’s rural areas. It is here that fertility rates have fallen most dramatically, despite the various progressive family policies. Moreover, the growing inclination of many women to actively participate in the labour market has so far been inhibited by poor public childcare facilities, which are still very poorly developed compared to urban areas. Since the child support is designed to benefit dual-income families and well-educated women, rural areas seem to benefit less.
In conclusion, fertility rates have increased where women are in jobs, i.e. in cities and in the east rather than the west. The introduction of the child support payments did not trigger this effect, but it has added fresh impetus to an existing trend towards reconciling families and careers.
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