Thursday, 21 February 2013

Germany: A land without children?

By Jonathan Eyal, The Straits Times, 20 Feb 2013

GERMANY remains Europe's biggest nation and the continent's most successful economy. However, when it comes to managing its population strategy, the country is a disaster: Every policy attempted over the past four decades has failed to lift the country's abysmal birth rates.

The German government would love to attract the sort of attention lavished on Singapore's Population White Paper. But most ordinary Germans no longer seem to care about debating the topic; they take it for granted that their nation is doomed to grow older and smaller. Welcome to a land without children.

The numbers are sobering: An average of 1.36 babies are born for every German woman. Germans who are younger than 18 form only 16.5 per cent of the population, the lowest such figure in Europe. Germany also has the highest percentage of females refusing to produce an offspring: A quarter of women born during the late 1960s and early 1970s have had no children at all.

If such trends continue, it is estimated that Germany's current 82 million-strong population will shrink to only 70 million as early as the middle of this century. And everyone assumes that's precisely what will happen: A recent report issued by the German Federal Institute for Population Research concluded mournfully that "children no longer represent a central aspect of life for Germans".

The country's politicians can hardly be accused of ignoring the problem. Since 2000, no fewer than 10 White Papers and consultation documents dealing with population questions were issued. Legislation is also frequently tweaked: The latest law came into effect on Sunday, and it's a revolutionary one, promising every newborn baby an automatic right to a subsidised day-care facility.

Nor is cash lacking, for in typical Germanic fashion, the Berlin authorities are throwing huge sums of money at the problem. A private study commissioned by the German government from a management consultancy firm and leaked to the country's media last week claims that Europe's largest economy spends a staggering 200 billion (S$330 billion) a year on family-related programmes of one kind or another, roughly two-thirds of the nation's budget.

Indeed, the consultants claim such vast sums are actually part of the problem, since the tangled web of social welfare payments is so complex that it bewilders even those supposed to administer it. There are child supplements, parental benefits, single-parent allowances, orphan "adjustments", "sibling bonuses", child education supplements and the imaginatively named "child education supplementary supplement". Yet none of these has made the slightest bit of difference to birth rates.

Financial experts pin the failure on purely technical matters, such as a German tax system which punishes people who live together unmarried, thereby unnecessarily raising the bar to the establishment of a family.

And, ironically, some German population-boosting subsidies merely replace other welfare payments, therefore making no difference: Monthly child allowances - currently 184 per baby - count towards a family's total income and are deducted from any other social benefits. So the financial incentive to produce children is often illusory for working-class families.

Still, this obscures the broader dilemma which faces every country embarking on a coherent family policy: whether a government should invest in education and pre-school facilities to boost birth rates, or simply give families cash. Germany's politicians have always chosen the latter option, partly because it's easier to administer, but mainly because payments of generous benefits are popular and win votes. Yet there is considerable evidence the availability of creches and other pre-school facilities are better boosters of fertility rates.

And then, there is the peculiarity of Germany itself, which is both a post-modern and a pre-modern society at the same time. On the one hand, most German couples live together without marriage, and a third of all babies are born out of wedlock. Most adults also don't look after their elderly parents; that job is left to the state.

But, at the same time, there is a strong popular expectation that mothers should stay at home to look after their children, rather than send them off to pre-school facilities. Indeed, the German language has a specific disparaging term for supposedly uncaring mums: Rabenmutter, or "raven mothers" who push their children out of the nest too soon.

So the result is that parenthood provides few advantages later in life, yet is seen as an extremely intense activity. With such attitudes prevailing, it's hardly surprising that Germans have so few children.

Given the damning record of German family policy, one would have expected the matter to be a major battleground in the run-up to this year's general election. But that's not happening: Germans simply yawn when family issues are being debated.

One explanation is that ordinary Germans are tired of hearing about population targets which are invariably missed. Unlike in Singapore, the population debate in Germany is also not tied to other sensitive issues such as land availability, housing and transport infrastructure: Most Germans rent rather than buy their homes, and land is plentiful.

There is also a historic reticence about government-sponsored population campaigns, since these were abused for military reasons during the Nazi dictatorship. But, in the end, while Singapore's population debate is about the ultimate size and composition of a future nation, Germany's debate is purely defensive, centring solely on how to halt a population decline, rather than reverse it. And that's not exactly a crowd-puller.

Still, some initiatives do end up exciting the Germans, albeit for the wrong reasons. That was the case with a recent move by Mrs Kristina Schroeder, the minister for family affairs, who wrote a book criticising feminists for failing to recognise that "children produce happiness". That created an uproar among women leaders; Ms Alice Schwarzer, Germany's grand old lady of feminism, dismissed the minister as being "simply unfit for her office".

The row required the intervention of Chancellor Angela Merkel. But, despite her popularity, Dr Merkel is not particularly persuasive on such issues either, for the twice-married chancellor is childless. Just like most of today's German professional women.

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