Germany: The lowest birthrate in the world?

Think of a first-world country with a reputation for a perennially competitive economy, an educated populace, and a rich cultural history -- and the problems associated with infertility don’t seem like they’d land among that list of positive attributes.

Germany, of all nations, has a birth-rate problem? And not the kind that implies overpopulation but one that, until very recently, placed the country at the bottom of the world’s birth-rate list of developed countries.

One bright spot: A 2015 study quoted by BBC News indicated that Germany had surpassed Japan to get out of last place on that list. And, as of this writing, the CIA’s World Fact Book estimated Germany’s birth rate at 213th out of 226 countries.

While an improvement, though, just-above last place is still not far from last place. And when compared to other European nations, Germany again ranks last, with an average of 8.2 births per 1,000 residents over a period of five years ending in 2015. Portugal logged 9.0 births per 1,000 over the same period, and Italy had an average of 9.3. France and the UK each reported birth rates of 12.7 per 1,000.

By contrast, the African nation of Niger boasted a birth rate of 50 per 1,000.

Like any other country, Germany needs to sustain its populace if it also hopes to maintain its economic and social way of life. But since the country doesn’t have the kind of problems of scale faced by, say, China, which recently eased its One-Child Policy in response to lagging birth rates, what could possibly account for Germany’s last- (and just-above-last) numbers?

First, a look at some recent positive developments.

A 2018 article from Deutsche Welle (DW) reported that Germany recorded its highest fertility rates since 1973. Citing numbers from the Federal Statistics Office, DW noted that nearly 800,000 more children were born in Germany in 2016 than in 2015 – a healthy and encouraging increase of 7 percent.

The increase is believed to be at least partially due to the German government’s implementation of so-called “family friendly” policies.

These include boosting parental leave allowances to two-thirds of income during the first year; guaranteeing parents placement for their child in a nursery at age 1; and, permitting parents to work part-time while also banking child allowances.

However, DW reported, parental leave and money aren’t effective enough tools in the campaign to persuade parents to have more offspring.

While nursery spots for child care are now guaranteed, there still aren’t enough nurseries, which effectively nullifies the guarantee for some families. France, on the other hand, places more emphasis on child care and less on parental leave. The result: The highest fertility rate in Europe, said DW.

Plus, the German labor market still lobs career hurdles into the paths of families with children. Many companies continue to refuse workers the chance to work part-time or from home, resulting in more low-paying jobs for parents returning from leave. And no one wants to keep having children when doing so weakens their earning power and, by extension, their ability to support a family.

And while the Federal Statistics Office noted that Germany has gotten out of last place in birth-rate rankings, the same office painted a bleak picture of Germany’s population numbers going forward.

In a press release, the office noted that deaths would “increasingly” outpace births for the foreseeable future. And, the office noted, “The positive balance of immigration into and emigration from Germany cannot close this gap for good.”

A report from The Economist underscored that notion not just in Germany’s case but for all of Europe, as well, stating that “migrants are no demographic panacea”.

The problem is mostly one of scale, given that the Federal Statistics Office said that Germany would need to take in some 470,000 working-age migrants every year in order to counter the country’s population decline. Those folks would also age, necessitating a continuous inflow, noted The Economist, adding that the population problem would be confounded by the fact that “[migrants’] fertility rates tend quickly to converge with those of the native population”.

Which, as already noted, would translate into a downward merging.

Amid all of the statistics and arguments, one idea remains clear: The safest and most practical method of ensuring maximum fertility lies not with the actions of governments and bureaucrats but with individuals themselves. Taking steps to preserve fertility can amount to a storing up of assets that no government can regulate, restrict, or adjust.