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Photo Gallery: Germany's Demographic Conundrum

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A Land Without Children Why Won't Germans Have More Babies?

Chancellor Angela Merkel's government has pumped billions into Germans' pockets to encourage them to make more babies -- but they still aren't doing it. Is it even a problem that the government is capable of solving?
Von SPIEGEL Staff

The man in the photo is well-dressed, somewhere between chic and casual in his white shirt and dark sports coat. In his left hand, he holds the basket-like device that modern parents use to transport their young children. He gazes at the baby lying in it.

The woman is walking just behind him, looking down at the pavement. She has that unique facial of expression of a woman who has recently given birth: a mix of exhaustion and elation.

The photo shows one of Germany's newest mothers, Family Minister Kristina Schröder, leaving the hospital with her husband, Ole, and their newborn daughter, Lotte Marie. Schröder is the first cabinet minister to get pregnant and give birth while in office.

The photo is the only one to be made public of Schröder as a mother, and it conveys an important message: Look at us, we are two happy, young people returning home from the hospital as a family. The message is that every woman can have children, including a cabinet minister who works a 70-hour week, is constantly in the public eye and is married to a member of parliament and senior official at the Interior Ministry.

In a country where fewer children are being born despite all official efforts to reverse the trend, this is an important message. For years, administrations in Berlin have tried to encourage Germans to have more children. Indeed, the Merkel administration has been particularly active on this issue: It has instituted parental leave benefits and guaranteed young children the legal right to a place in a daycare center beginning in August 2013.

To date, the benefits paid to Germans on parental leave -- known in Germany as "Elterngeld" (literally "parents' money") -- have cost the government almost €15 billion ($21 billion). But no matter how much money the state throws at the problem, it won't go away.

A Solution That Has Failed

Last week, Germany's Federal Statistical Office determined that the country has the smallest percentage of children of all European countries. Over the last decade, the number of Germans under the age of 18 has declined by 2.1 million. In terms of percentages, this population segment fell from 18.8 percent in 2000 to only 16.5 percent in 2010. Roderich Egeler, the organization's president, warns: "This downward trend will continue."

Ursula von der Leyen, the current labor minister who introduced parental leave benefits when she was still family minister, had imagined things would go very differently. But the fact that nothing seems to be working raises a number of questions: What's causing Germany's low birth rates? Is it a lack of infrastructure, such as too few daycare spots? Are workplace conditions to blame? Is it a money issue? Or is it something difficult for politicians to address, such as a certain mood in the country?

The Childcare Conundrum

Joy Denalane, 38, is a well-known German singer and the mother of two children. The fact that her husband, Max Herre, is also a famous singer means they are both spend a lot of time on the road. Such an arrangement isn't exactly conducive to raising a family. So, if they hope to continue pursuing their careers, having access to daycare is essential.

"I spent my first three years as a mother in (the southwestern state of) Baden-Württemberg," Denalane says. "They were shocking." At the facility her child attended, daycare was only available until noon and then for another two hours in the afternoon. "That's completely inadequate for a working mother, even if she has a partner who helps out."

Germany still suffers from a glaring paucity of childcare options, such as full-day kindergartens and daycare centers. Recently passed laws stipulate that every young child will have a legal right to childcare beginning Aug. 1, 2013. To meet that deadline, Germany will have to have 750,000 childcare slots, but it's still 280,000 slots behind.

Indeed, much of the €4 billion ($5.7 billion) that Germany's federal government has made available to states and municipalities has already been spent, and the mood among those doing the spending is only moderately positive.

"In some cases, the funding in the states is still unclear," wrote Josef Hecken, Schröder's state secretary, in a letter to Ute Schäfer, the chairwoman of the conference of family ministers. Hecken also added that Germany's 16 federal states "have fallen short of the agreed targets in many areas" when it comes to sharing the costs.

The letter also mentioned that this has prompted the federal government to want to install an "investment monitoring system" that would require state governments to provide "detailed information" about how they use federal funds.

Schröder is apparently particularly incensed over three states, Baden-Württemberg, the northern state of Lower Saxony and the city-state of Bremen, where both the expansion of childcare facilities and plans for financing it have stalled.

Empty Promises

Though the childcare shortage is one of the major factors behind Germany's shrinking number of children, it doesn't explain everything. Another factor is what many mothers experience in the workplace. At industry association meetings and conventions, business owners and HR executives like to throw around catchphrases like "work-life balance" and "family-friendly." But what does this look like in practice?

Cornelia Dahlke, a consultant at an airline, has some experience in this matter. When she became pregnant with her first child, she says her boss said: "The good ones always get pregnant." When she announced she was pregnant with her second child, she says her boss was less friendly, telling her that "stopping at one child might have been a good idea."

When Dahlke first started at the company, her employer promised flexible working hours and moral support. But things didn't turn out that way. Although her employer agreed to her request for a 30-hour work week, the contract also stated that her hours could be scheduled to meet "business requirements."

After informing people at work that she was expecting a second child, the complaints of Dahlke's boss turned into actions: He cancelled an expected raise and ignored her promotion requests.

The situation wasn't quite as dire for Vera Meyer, but the 40-year-old mother of two still has some complaints about the lack of support she encountered at work. For more than 10 years, Meyer has been working in sales at a massive food wholesaler in Berlin. After finishing her period of subsidized maternity leave, Meyer reduced her hours to spend more time with her children. "At the time, I actually expected to be let go," she says. Although that didn't happen, Meyer says fellow employees were not very accepting. "I'm not half a person because I work half days," she says. "I expect more respect for this 24-hour-a-week job."

Easier at the Top

The situation is often even more difficult for executives because they generally have to work significantly longer hours than other employees. Still, it is also often easier for them to set their own conditions for juggling family and work obligations.

Astrid Schulte, 45, is married with three daughters but separated from her husband. She has enjoyed a successful career as a marketing executive, including positions at Cartier and Roland Berger. She should have been satisfied. But when she was in her mid-30s and working up to 80 hours a week, she realized something was missing.

"There was simply no balance in my life," Schulte says. When she became pregnant, she happened upon Bellybutton, a company that makes products for pregnant women. Today, she is the company's managing director.

During her first few years at the company, Schulte says she sometimes had to have her kids take naps under her desk. The only thing that made it possible for her to get away with that was the fact that there was no one above her to say she couldn't bring them to work.

Though Andrea Nahles does have a boss, that didn't stop the 41-year-old general secretary of Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD) from stepping back into the spotlight just two months after giving birth to her daughter, Ella Maria. Nahles didn't want to take any more time for herself because she believes that a politician who doesn't appear in public is practically nonexistent.

In an interview with the women's magazine Brigitte given before her daughter's birth, Nahles said she has "a job that gives rise to certain jealousies" and that there were certain people -- including some in her own party -- whose support she could not count on "the minute things got difficult."

Of course, not all of her fellow party members were happy about the comment, and some felt her remarks were greatly exaggerated. But that's not something Nahles has to worry about anymore: She's back at work, and her husband, an art historian, has reduced his hours and assumed the lion's share of the responsibility for looking after their daughter.

Of course, this sort of an arrangement requires finding the right partner first -- but that's something politicians can't influence.

Is It a Matter of Money?

When it comes to money matters, however, the government does have some sway. But things aren't looking good in this respect, either. Many people still ask themselves whether they can afford to have a child because, for most of them, doing so would involve significant sacrifices.

Germany's Federal Supreme Court recently ruled that single parents are only entitled to subsistence allowances in exceptional cases. And when a child turns three, divorced parents are generally required to work full time.

Anne Berlin, 29, works as a team leader for a private nursing service in Hamburg. Her husband works as a paramedic. The couple has a son, Kyle, who is 18 months old.

After spending an entire year at home with Kyle, Berlin has been back on the job for a few weeks. It was a nice time, she says, but "the parental leave benefits were never enough." At the moment, she says she and her husband can't even ponder the idea of having more children because "money is always tight."

Tina Ruland, a well-known German actress, also feels that there are many injustices when it comes to parental leave benefits. The 44-year-old has two young sons, and her domestic partner works as a management consultant. In fact, Ruland is so upset about parental leave benefits that she intends to file a lawsuit that she hopes will make its way to the Federal Constitutional Court.

Ruland's case aims to improve social benefits for actors. The problem has to do with how parental leave benefits are calculated. The amount of the subsidy is based on the parents' incomes over the 12 months immediately preceding the birth of their child. Since pregnant actresses are rarely hired for roles, they often have no income for months, which leaves them with the minimum parental leave benefit of just €300 a month.

"This isn't just about me," Ruland says. "Things might be easier for me than for others. I know other actresses who have to draw on their retirement savings after giving birth."

Of course, there are also couples who don't really need parental leave benefits and view them as more of a bonus that allows them to take a vacation, for example. In many cases, such couples take advantage of the months of parental leave to finally travel through Canada in a camper or backpack through Thailand with their new baby. Indeed, books with titles like "Parental Leave Adventures" are best-sellers.

Can Money Really Solve the Problem?

Whether helping poorer parents make ends meet or richer ones go on vacation, the parental leave benefits are apparently not achieving their actual goal yet.

"We probably won't be able to use money to make having children more attractive," admits Bert Rürup, a former government adviser and economist who helped devise the concept of the parental leave benefit before then-Family Minister Von der Leyen introduced it in 2007.

German couples are entitled to 14 months of parental leave benefits between them. But this figure is reduced to 12 months if only one parent takes time off. However, only one in four fathers takes time off, and most of them limit themselves to two months of parental leave to maximize the benefit period. Many fathers also postpone their parental leave until the end of this period, when the child is about a year old and usually less demanding in terms of its needs, which certainly doesn't sound like much help for the mother.

No Country for Working Moms

The program for parental leave benefits has been roundly criticized from many quarters. Christian Lindner, the general secretary of the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP), the junior partner in the ruling coalition, recently called for eliminating the subsidy altogether, arguing that it had failed to achieve its goals despite becoming a vested right. But Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the senior coalition partner, continues to support the parental subsidy -- and it even wants to add a childcare subsidy soon.

Critics describe the proposed children subsidy as a "stove premium" because it creates an incentive for women to care for their children at home -- the traditional but long-outdated model. Still, this idea of the stay-at-home mother seems to be more deeply embedded in the minds of Germans than with residents of other countries held up as models in this matter, such as France, Sweden, Finland and Norway.

Kerstin Jürgens, a sociologist in the central German city of Kassel, calls this the "German social model." Until well into the 1990s, the prevailing image of the family was one in which the husband earned a living while the wife stayed at home and maybe even worked a bit on the side until the children came home from school.

"In contrast to other European countries, such as France or Sweden, family and career were treated as completely separate spheres," Jürgens says. Indeed, reconciling family and career obligations was seen as a private problem that women would simply have to solve on their own.

In other words, despite all the nice talk about "work-life balance" and "family-friendly," the reality has been much harsher. In fact, even Germany's social systems still favor the traditional family structure. For example, housewives get their health insurance through their husbands, who in turn enjoy tax advantages by having wives without outside jobs. This only increases the disadvantages for families with two working parents.

Giving Housewives Respect and Financial Security

These are the political facts. But there is also a climate in Germany that seems to continuously handicap further development of the family structure. Likewise, there are zealots on both sides of the family debate.

For many Germans, Marie Theres Kroetz-Relin, 45, is the daughter of the famous Swiss-Austrian actress Maria Schell. But she is also the mother of three children, now 22, 19 and 16. One could say she gave up her acting career for her children, but it's a characterization she detests. She prefers to say: "I've had a wonderful career as a housewife and mother!"

In 2002, Kroetz-Relin founded the "Housewives' Revolution," a website with an online platform on which housewives can vent their frustrations.

Kroetz-Relin is fighting to have housewives get the recognition she thinks they deserve. She would love to see the government pay housewives €400 per month, but she would settle for having it offer them the chance to join a pension plan. "We really ought to turn family policy completely upside down," she says.

She has always seen money as a tool of power. She was married to the German playwright and actor Franz Xaver Kroetz for 14 years. Until their wedding in 1992, she earned her own money, received film awards and was "completely independent." After the divorce in 2006, she had her independence back -- but she didn't have an income. "An actress who has a child is out of the game," she says. "But an actress with three children isn't even contacted anymore."

A No-Win Situation

Family Minister Schröder, 34, knows how tough the discussion in Germany can be. In mid-May, at eight-months pregnant, she was sitting in her office just a few days away from starting her maternity eave. Her purple top was tight across her belly and she looked exhausted. The midday heat was taking its toll.

Shröder didn't want to discuss issues related to her personal situation, including how she and her husband, Ole, planned to divide parenting responsibilities and whether the baby would be sent to a daycare center or be cared for at the Family Ministry's in-house facility. The issue was too sensitive for her. "I don't want to serve as a role model and set a specific example," she said.

According to Schröder, there is still "an extremely tense debate" in Germany. She believes that woman, in particular, are faced with a serious challenge. "No matter how they do it, they are doing it wrong," she says. "When a woman focuses completely on her children, she is the picture of the perfect housewife. But if she wants to keep working full time, she is seen as being selfish." And whenever a woman tries to combine the two, Schröder adds, "some call her a bad mother and others call her a latte macchiato mother."

Written by Benita Dill, Katrin Elger, Katharina Fuhrin, Christoph Hickmann and Christoph Schwennicke. Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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