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?


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.

Discuss this issue with other readers!
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andreeasepi 09/14/2011
1. Outdated model
The German daycare system is a sinister joke for today's young, dynamic mothers. There are extremely few places available for babies and they cost a lot of money (300-600 euros a month). The situation is no better for children age 3 and older. Most kindergartens close at 4 p.m., even though most jobs last until (at least) 5 p.m. And even if you enroll your kid full-time, you are scolded by the teachers if you are not there to pick him up at 15:55 or earlier. The teachers look bored and cannot wait to go home themselves. Sometimes they will suggest indirectly that you are an insensitive mother to let your child spend so much time in the kindergarten. Do they honestly believe it is better for these children to spend their lives at home, cut off from the world and without any social interaction? No wonder so many German kids are downright anti-social. Where I come from, the situation is completely different. Mothers go back to work as soon as(or even before) their maternity leave ends, first of all because they cannot afford to stay home, and second because they too need intellectual challenges and a professional and social life. In Germany mothers are expected to be brain-dead caregivers with no life or needs of their own...
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