Baby Gap: Germany's Birth Rate Hits Historic Low

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Germany is shrinking — fast. New figures released on May 17 show the birth rate in Europe's biggest economy has plummeted to a historic low, dropping to a level not seen since 1946. As demographers warn of the consequences of not making enough babies to replace and support an aging population, the latest figures have triggered a bout of national soul-searching and cast a harsh light on Chancellor Angela Merkel's family policies.

According to a preliminary analysis by the Federal Statistics Office, 651,000 children were born in Germany in 2009 — 30,000 fewer than in 2008, a dip of 3.6%. In 1990, German mothers were having on average 1.5 children each; today that average is down to 1.38 children per mother. With a shortfall of 190,000 between the number of people who died and the number of children who were born, Germany's birth rate is well below the level required to keep the population stable.

"The German birth rate has remained remarkably flat over the past few years while it has increased in other low-fertility countries, like Italy and the Czech Republic," Joshua Goldstein, executive director of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, tells TIME. "Women are continuing to postpone motherhood to an older age and this process of postponement is temporarily lowering the birth rate." According to Goldstein's research, Germany has the longest history of low fertility in Europe.

To explain Germany's low reproduction rate, Steffen Kröhnert, a social scientist at the Berlin Institute for Population Development, points to a number of factors. Many German women decide not to have children because of poor state-run child-care facilities. Most schools in Germany finish earlier than in other parts of Europe — some as early as 1 p.m. — leaving parents struggling to find and afford sufficient day care. And often women who take up part-time jobs to try to juggle work and family life end up paying a high financial price. "Many German women have to stop work and end their careers if they want to have kids," says Kröhnert. It doesn't help that German mothers are still often branded Rabenmütter — "raven mothers" — a pejorative label that accuses them of being bad mothers if they decide to put their children in nurseries and continue working.

As Germany feels the demographic crunch, the country's plummeting birth rate has become a contentious political issue. Over the past few years, Chancellor Merkel has introduced a number of family-boosting incentives, including a new parental allowance for couples that pays a parent who chooses to stay home 67% of his or her income for the first year after their child is born (with a cap of $2,300 per month). The measure is aimed at encouraging fathers to take a more active role in raising their children and, in that respect, it appears to have paid off. One-in-five fathers now stays home to look after the kids.

Merkel's new center-right government has also pledged to expand the number of nursery school places, setting itself the ambitious goal of providing 1-in-three 3 under age 3 with state-funded child care by 2013. But it remains to be seen whether that new initiative will motivate Germans to make more babies. "There are many reasons why couples don't have children," said Family Minister Kristina Schröder in a statement. "The economic crisis and job fears play a role. We have to help people combine work and family, especially in these difficult economic times."

And that help has to come soon: the predictions of Germany's demographic future make for uncomfortable reading. The Federal Statistics Office says Germany's population of 82 million could drop by up to 17 million over the next 50 years. Demographers fear a shrinking workforce will stymie growth and struggle to foot the bill for a rapidly aging population. "Germany's working-age population is likely to decrease 30% over the next few decades," says Kröhnert of the Berlin Institute for Population Development. "Rural areas will see a massive population decline and some villages will simply disappear — Germany will become a weak economic power in the future."

Kröhnert says that while society has become more modern and more women are choosing both career and kids, German politicians have reacted too slowly to the country's falling birth rate. With the recent multibillion dollar bailout for Greece and the euro-zone rescue package straining Germany's already stretched public finances, Merkel is coming under increasing pressure from within her own conservative party to make cuts. The powerful governor of the state of Hesse, Roland Koch, recently suggested the government could save on education and child care, although Merkel quickly distanced herself from his remarks, insisting that those areas would be spared the axe. But the Chancellor was elected last September on her promise to reduce taxes, a pledge she has been forced to put on ice for the next few years. As Germany battles to bring its spiraling budget deficit under control, it may have trouble convincing its citizens to add to the family for the good of the country.