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Germany facing shrinking population

January 22, 2006

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BERLIN: Are Germans an endangered species? Stunning as it may seem, a steep decline in the German population since 1972 and fears the trend will gain pace have led demographers to warn of unsettling consequences.

The number of Germans has declined by 3.2 million — the population of Berlin — over the last 30 years but demographers’ concerns have mostly been ignored until now in a country scarred by the Nazis’ nefarious procreation pressures.

German leaders have now lifted the birth rate to the top of the political agenda for the first time since the Nazi era, and the two ruling parties are trying to outdo each other with pro-family measures.

“Germans are at risk of dying out if the trend continues,” said Harald Michel, managing director of the Institute for Applied Demography. He fears the German population could shrink from 75 million to 50 million by 2050 and further after that.

“The birth rates have been below the replacement rate for 35 years — a lethal development,” he added. “Germans could become an ‘endangered people’. It’s hypothetical now but we may have to think about ‘the last German’ at some point. The problem is compounded each generation. Children not born 30 years ago obviously aren’t there to have children now.”

Germans have long had one of the lowest birth rates in the European Union at 1.3 children per woman — far below the “replacement rate” of 2.1 needed to keep the population stable and about half the rate of 40 years ago.

More than 30 per cent of east and west Germans born from 1960 to 1967 will remain childless. Among Germans with higher education, the childless rate is even higher at 38 per cent.

“Each generation is being reduced by about a third,” said Norbert Walter, chief economist at Deutsche Bank.

“The consequences are foreseeable,” he added, referring to the financial havoc a shrinking population is causing in areas ranging from the increasingly under-funded state pension system to weak consumer spending and sagging property values.

“I think it’s an exaggeration to talk about Germans becoming ‘extinct’. But when a country that once had more than 80 million people ends up with only 60 million at some point down the road, well, that will be a completely different country then.”

The silent shrinking has so far been masked by immigrants.

But Germany’s anaemic economy is no longer a magnet and the total population, which includes 7 million foreigners, has actually declined in recent years — from a peak of 82,536,680 in 2002 to 82,500,849 in 2004.

Low birth rates plague other nations like Italy, Russia and Japan where the Yomiuri daily said last month that the average number of children a woman bears in her lifetime fell to a record low in 2005.

But demographers say Germany is worse off because the problem has been ignored for so long. In other leading industrial nations like the United States, Britain and France, birth rates are much closer to the replacement rate.

“Why did we show so little interest the last 40 years as we went from a republic rich with children to one with a children shortage?” ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder asked last year.

Now, interest has revived. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government — formed late last year — recently agreed to give new mothers generous one-year wage replacement subsidies. Plans to eliminate fees for kindergarten are also being floated.

“It’s the first time since 1945 that a German government has come out of the closet about population policy,” wrote the Berliner Zeitung newspaper. “Family policy is suddenly chic.”—Reuters