Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Some thoughts on the origins of low fertility in Germany in reactions to totalitarianism

In Europe, northern and western European countries have relatively high levels of completed fertility, higher than those of southern and eastern European countries. This is a generalization, and this generalization like all others is accurate until it is contradicted. The contradiction in this case comes clearly--and famously--from Germany, as shown in this Eurostat graphic.

This is a trend not concentrated in any one region of Germany. As the below map shows, sustained low fertility is a nation-wide trend.

One might think that fertility in Germany would look more like that in neighbouring western European countries like France and the Netherlands, or northern European countries like Denmark and Sweden. Instead, fertility in Germany has been consistently as low as--or even lower than--fertility in southern Europe. Why?

Back in 2009, I wrote a blog post called "On the contradictions between traditional family structures and high completed fertility in developed countries". In it, I briefly compared France with the former West Germany. Both territories are countries at similar levels of economic development with populations of similar size, yet completed fertility has consistently been stronger in France after the Second World War. Jean-Marie Le Goff's paper "Cohabiting unions in France and West Germany: Transitions to first birth and first marriage", in issue 7.18 of Demographic Research, examines the contrast in depth.

French total fertility rates (TFR) have traditionally been higher, on average by the value 0.3 to 0.7 since 1965 (Council of Europe, 2001). In 1965, the TFR was 2.7 in France and 2.4 in West Germany. In both countries, the TFR decreased drastically until the middle of the seventies and levelled off thereafter. In 1999, the TFR was 1.8 in France and 1.4 in West Germany. Moreover, pronounced differences in nonmarital births between France and West Germany have emerged since the beginning of the eighties. France witnessed a big increase in non-marital fertility rates; from roughly 11% in 1980 they reached 41% in 1999. In West Germany, the increase in non-marital births was less pronounced, from 8% to 18% (Council of Europe, 2001). In most developed countries, an increase in non-marital births occurred simultaneously with an increase in non-marital unions (Kiernan 2001a and b). France appears to follow this pattern, but West Germany constitutes an exceptional case.

Women in France, Le Goff argues, have access to a whole variety of family structures, from the traditional nuclear marriage family to a family marked by cohabitation to single motherhood, with a relatively long tradition of recognizing the responsibilities of parents towards their children regardless of their legal status, with the idea of mothers working outside of the home not only being accepted but supported by any number subsidies to parents to affordable and accessible day care. In West Germany, social and policy norms tend to support traditional family structures. The result? In France, people are childbearing age are split between two sectors, one defined by marriage relationships and the other defined by cohabitation relationships. On the other side of the Rhine, people of childbearing age are split between people who have children and people who don't. Katja Köppen's Second births in Western Germany and France" (Demographic Research 14.14) further points out that whereas Frenchwomen seem to enjoy an institutional structure that encourages motherhood and there isn't a contradiction between high levels of education--hence employment--and fertility, there is such a contradiction in western Germany, with government spending priorities in the latter country being directed towards the support of traditional families. It's not too much of a surprise, then, that the German Federal Statistics Office reported that the proportions of childless women were rising, particularly in the former West Germany.

The number of childless women is increasing in Germany. As reported by the Federal Statistical Office (Destatis), in 2008 21% of the women aged 40 to 44 years had not given birth to a child. By contrast, 16% of the women who were ten years older (birth cohorts from 1954 to 1958) and only 12% of the women who were 20 years older (birth cohorts from 1944 to 1948) were childless. A share of 26% of the women aged between 35 and 39 years had no children yet in 2008. However, the proportion of childless women will still decline in this age group.These and more 2008 microcensus core results regarding childlessness and births in Germany were announced today by Roderich Egeler, President of the Federal Statistical Office, at a press conference in Berlin.In the eastern part of Germany, the number of childless women is by far smaller than in western Germany. While in the ‘old’ Länder, 16% of the women aged 40 to 75 years have no children, their share amounts to only 8% in the ‘new’ Länder. Regarding younger women, too, the difference is considerable. In the ‘old’ Länder, a share of 28% of the women aged between 35 and 39 years (birth cohorts from 1969 to 1973) have no children yet, while the relevant proportion amounts to not more than 16% in the ‘new’ Länder.

In the former East Germany, where in the Communist era different and decidedly non-traditional norms of family prevailed, rates of fertility are now noticeably higher than in the West.

Why was this the case in the first place? Why was West German family policy so much more conservative than in neighbouring western and northern European countries? Why does Germany not look more like France, or perhaps more plausibly given cultural similarities the Netherlands or even Nordic countries? In West Germany, as Toshihiko Hara suggests in the paper "Fertility Trend and Family Policies in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands", a reaction to the intrusive policies of the Nazis is responsible.

In Germany, any arguments and policies to promote births are tabooed still today due to nightmare memories about pro-natalistic policies which accompanied racial discrimination under the Nazi regime. For this reason, the basic stand point for family policy is that the government should be responsible for family according to constitutional prescription but act only in a subsidiary function to marriage and family and avoid any intervention in individual affairs. Thus, the family policies in former West Germany, historically have been designed to encourage and sustain the traditional, two parent family with an "at- home" mother caring for children, through financial measures to realize an equitable distribution of the burden of maintaining a family. However, with the social changes in the 1970s, i.e. legalization of abortion, the reform of divorce law, improvement of juristic status of extra-marital child, the family policy has become increasingly concerned with various family models. Then, since the 1980s, the weight of the family policy is shifting to the support for labor participation of mothers and for improving the child rearing environment, through the extended three-year parental leave with the child-rearing allowance, an acknowledgement of the rearing period in pension law and so on.

In contrast to former West Germany, the government in former East Germany performed a series of pro-natalistic policy measures from 1976 under the slogan of " build up the Socialist Nation" and they realized even a short term rise of fertility. The major purpose of this policy was to promote labor participation of women (and fertility) for expanding of labor supply source (in future) . In fact, they were supportive of labor policy rather than family policy. They have realized the high level of job participation in married women and the developed child care facilities. On the other side, they have increased the extra-marital births through the preferential dwelling support for single mothers and decreased the mean age of first marriage and birth, by giving the priority to married mother for using the child care center. These legacies remains still today in former East Germany long after unification.

A reaction, in West Germany, to the totalitarian motives of East Germany in deeply involving itself in family formation also seems to have played a role in dissuading West Germany policymakers from making institutional changes to the traditional social conservatism of the German welfare state. The eventual result of this sustained commitment to traditional family structures, as described in Jürgen Dorbritz's 2008 "Germany: Family diversity with low actual and desired fertility" (Demographic Research 19.17), was to accentuate the shift in Germany towards low fertility, with one notable theme being people who--given different policies--might have opted to form families with children in non-traditional families opting not to have children at all.

This anti-totalitarian reaction is understandable. I can readily believe that in democratic West Germany immediately after the horrors of the Second World War, the depoliticization of intimate life was a high priority. The sharp drop in fertility in Germany relative to its regional peers may well have been overdetermined. It should go without saying that keeping the reaction of the post-war years well after the reaction was useful has not been at all helpful. This can conceivably change over time, though, but there is still going to be a demographic deficit in the numbers of people of childbearing age in Germany, a consequence of the below-replacement fertility that has prevailed since the early 1970s. This will echo indefinitely, if and until we get sustained increases in completed fertility. Thus does history echo.


Colin said...

Similar historical baggage could apply to somewhere like Romania, given the pro-natalist policies of the Ceausescu regime.

The theory of a fertility dip during the transition from 'traditional' to 'modern' gender roles makes a lot of sense in explaining the current crop of lowest-fertility countries (the trough coming when childless/unmarried women have a similar socio-economic status to men in the same situation, but mothers and wives are still constrained by the 'nuclear family' model). I wonder, where does somewhere like the USA fit into this picture? Culturally, it would seem to be comparable to the German situation (with even worse provision for working mothers), and yet the USA's fertility rate is still much higher than Germany's.

David said...

Interesting hypothesis. One possible flaw would be that the maps/statistics seem to indicate that the total fertility rate is similar in E and W Germany, despite the differences in family policy/structure. As the data indicates that E Germany has much lower rates of childlessness, presumably this means that in W Germany high rates of childlessness are offset by larger families by those who do have children while in E Germany this is not the case.

Randy McDonald said...

Colin, agreed that Romania is quite likely.

There might be worse provision, but I wonder if there's more acceptance for working mothers in America than in Germany.

David, I agree. I think that a situation where most people still have children but simply have fewer than they'd like is more tractable than a situation where a sizable number of people have dropped out of parenting altogether.

Richard said...

The US, has a fair amount of immigration, and immigrants have more kids than native-borns.

The US is also more religious and has more rural & exurban areas. Both the Catholic church and Church of latter-day Saints (Mormons) are pro-natal. Meanwhile, having kids is easier in the countryside.