Germans buck trend by having more babies

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More babies were born in Germany during the first nine months of 2007, but will it be enough to stop the population decline in Europe's biggest nation?

23 December 2007

Berlin (dpa) - More babies were born in Germany during the first nine months of 2007, but will it be enough to stop the population decline in Europe's biggest nation?

Provisional figures released by the Federal Statistics Office in mid-December showed 514,000 new births for the period, an increase of around 1 per cent over a year ago.

It was the first time the birth rate had risen since 1997, but officials were unable to predict whether births would outstrip deaths for the whole of this year.

In November, the statistics office said 313,100 children were born in the first six months of 2007, some 800 or 0.3 per cent fewer than in the corresponding period of 2006.

Deaths outstripped births by 95,600 in the first half of the year, putting the country of 82.3 million on course for a population decline for the fifth consecutive year.

The latest figures were an encouragement for officials who had hoped that new cash incentives and the feel-good effect generated by last year's football World Cup would encourage Germans to have more babies.

In the early part of this year clinics, gynaecologists and midwives reported an increase in the number of enquiries about pre-natal courses and maternity conditions in hospitals.

The incentives include a form of state-funded welfare support where parents can claim up to 67 per cent of their previous income while staying at home to raise their children.

Although the measures did not come into force until December 2006, they were announced the previous May, allowing parents to take advantage of them by having children in the first quarter of 2007.

Experts have put forward a number of reasons why Germans have a relatively low birthrate: a family culture that discriminates against working women and lack of childcare facilities.

"Women are often faced with the stark choice 'do I have children?' or do I continue to work?'," says Steffen Kroehnert of the Berlin Institute for Population and Development.

In a bid to reverse the trend, Chancellor Angela Merkel's government has also introduced tax breaks to help couples that want children and has agreed to a vast expansion of nursery school places that would allow women to raise children and continue working.

"The measures are step in the right direction and will certainly have an effect in the medium-to-long-term," says Kroehnert.

"But a lot more needs to be done to turn Germany into a country where young men and women no longer have reservations about having a family," says Family Affairs Minister Ursula von der Leyen, herself a mother of seven.

More people died than were born in Germany every year since 1991, but the population continued to rise because of immigration. This trend ended in 2003 and the population has declined every year since.

German women give birth to an average of 1.36 children in their lifetime. While the fertility rate has been relatively constant, the declining population means there are fewer women to bear children, according to Kroehnert.

The population downturn has been felt particularly in the former communist eastern part of Germany where the birth rate dropped by 50 per cent in the four years after German unification in 1990.

Economic uncertainty and an exodus of young people seeking a better life in the more prosperous western states were given as major factors for the decline.

Today, it is mainly educated young women who are turning their backs on East Germany, another contributing factor to the lower birth rate, says Kroehnert.

If the trend continues in Germany then the country could find its population diminishing 10 million by 2050, with the proportion of elderly people sharply rising, according to population experts.

The Federal Statistics Office estimates that by the middle of the century only half the population will be of working age, with 30 per cent over 65 and just 15 per cent under the age of 20.

Some economists believe this will have a negative effect on the nation because there will be fewer people paying taxes and economic growth could suffer.

Others are not so pessimistic, pointing to innovation and advances in technology, which they believe will more than offset the effects a declining workforce will have on Germany's economic performance.

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