Some scientists thought that the decline in the birth rate associated with demographic change would stop at two children per woman. A visit to the German village of Hemeln shows what a big misconception this was. Many of the half-timbered houses in this hamlet on the banks of the Weser River in central Germany are listed in the registry of protected historical houses.
Walter Henckel has a view of the river from his window. In this spot, the Weser is also the border between the states of Lower Saxony and Hesse. "It used to be like a foreign country for us," Henckel says with a laugh, referring to the town across the river.
Henckel, a 79-year-old retired architect, is a polite old man with a round face, alert eyes and carefully parted white hair. He has been the town's honorary official in charge of historical preservation for the last 41 years, or almost half his life.
He remembers better days. In 1989, for example, he helped lead Hemeln to victory in a contest called "Our Village Should Become More Beautiful." Today, the contest is called "Our Village Has a Future," and the village council is about to decide whether it's even worthwhile to apply.
Henckel recently went from door to door, once again, with his leather folder under his arm. "At the moment, we are fighting to keep our elementary school from being closed," he says. The school board in the nearby town of Hannoversch Münden announced that the current student body of 35 children was not enough to warrant keeping the school open. This year, there were only nine first-graders.
'They Won't Come Back'
When Henckel arrived in Hemeln as a newly married young man, there were lots of children playing in the streets. Today, many of its 966 residents have gray hair, and almost a third of them are older than 60.
There hasn't been a doctor in the village for a long time. Indeed, someone from the village reportedly once said: "In Hemeln, pigs get better treatment than people." Although there is a mobile market today that also takes order for cakes, the only supermarket was shut down three years ago. And there is also a bakery that doubles as a small post office.
These are the symptoms of the fourth phase of demographic change, and Henckel can no longer fend them off. Decline has reached rural Germany, but the ailment is also expected to take hold in the cities soon. In 2050, only about 70 million people are expected to be living in Germany, whereas today's figure is roughly 82 million.
The changes could even affect the country's largest cities, where the shrinking trend is currently offset by the younger people migrating from rural to urban areas. The situation in Henckel's family is no different. One of his children lives near Dortmund, in western Germany, and the other one lives in Berlin. "They won't come back," says Henckel.
He has already taken steps to address the possibility of declining health in the future. His house is designed to be wheelchair-compatible. "If we ever become dependent on care," he says, "we'll mortgage the house and use the money to pay for an outpatient nursing service."
Germany's future is gray. Except for Japan, no other country has a higher average age.
This prospect causes many demographers to shake their heads in disbelief over the German immigration debate. The census takers at the UN have already coined the term "replacement migration." For Germany, they have calculated that the country will need 24 million new immigrants in the coming 40 years to keep the working population at its current level.
The depopulation of rural areas will also affect the capital and real-estate markets. Elod Takats, a Hungarian economist with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), estimates that houses in Japan, Italy and Germany will soon start losing 1 percent of their value every year.
Of course, our knowledge of such relationships is nothing new. Indeed, Frederick William I, the king of Prussia from 1713 to 1740, is reported to have once said: "A country's population is its greatest asset."
When asked if economic growth can still be achieved with fewer and fewer people, Klingholz, the demographer from the Berlin Institute for Population and Development, says: "We will have to abandon the idea of measuring our country's success by its GDP."