Thursday, September 14, 2006

Demography is Destiny: Birthrates in Small German Town Belie Larger National Problem

Today's Los Angeles Times has a fascinating article on Cloppenburg, Germany, a small northern town, about 100 miles from the North Sea, whose birthrates contradict the long-term secular trend in Germany -- and the European Union -- toward population stagnation and the likely loss of national vigor:

Germany's birthrate is the lowest in Europe, a continent that is aging faster than any on Earth. Demographers and politicians are studying Cloppenburg's reproductive inclinations in hopes they can be transplanted to other regions. Reversing the downward birth spiral across Europe is crucial: Without more newborns, the ranks of workers will diminish, threatening the public purse and the ideal of social democracy.

Germany had 686,000 births last year, or about half as many as the early 1960s, according to the Office of Federal Statistics. The consequences of that trend are particularly disturbing when compared with the nation's 830,000 deaths in 2005.

The German government is working on legislation to encourage more children, including increased day care and better financial packages for women on maternity leave. In a not-very-subtle suggestion that professional couples can handle large broods, the nation's family minister, Ursula von der Leyen, is a doctor with seven children.

Germany's figures may be the most dramatic, but a report by the European Union predicts that by 2030 the number of people older than 65 on the continent will increase by 40 million while the working-age population will shrink by nearly 21 million. Muslim immigrants in Germany and other countries are filling part of the gap, but integration problems have intensified since terrorist bombings in Madrid and London.

It is unlikely, however, that Cloppenburg's zeal for procreation can be copied. This region's rhythms and religious beliefs, its sense of community and devotion to family, run counter to an increasingly secular, egoistic Europe, some say. In many ways, Cloppenburg, a place of prams and tiny bikes, is a glimpse less of the continent's future than its past."

It's still accepted here that the woman stays home with the children, at least in the early years," said Markus Meckelnborg, a financial consultant with four children in the neighboring town of Emstek. "The question is, why is the trend going away from what's happening here? People are running away from church for this self-absorbed life and they end up at a shrink's office."
Check out the whole piece, which has further discussion of the cultural determinants affecting Cloppenburg's deviation from national norms in lifestyles and family size.

There are larger issues here as well, which make the German case important for reasons beyond purely demographic interest.

A country's population is a key element of a national power and war-fighting capacity. Population dynamism combines with other factors such as territory, geography, national resources, military-industrial potential, bureaucratic effectiveness, and popular elan (a sense of national will) to determine a nation's power capabilities. Germany during the 1930s, for example, had dramatically higher birthrates than France, a circumstance that increasingly put Germany's western neighbor on the defensive in the changing distribution of power on the continent.

Today, countries like China and India -- while still far behind the U.S. in the size of their national economies -- have tremendous human resources potential bound-up with their demographic heft. Keep in mind, though, that the dramatic disparities of wealth in these societies (and the deeply ingrained pockets of poverty) will hinder the power potential of the Chinese and Indian states. Having said this, it nevertheless remains the case that analysts will be keenly watching developments of these "new giants," as their growth may ultimately tilt the balance of world capabilities away from the U.S., and especially from Europe.

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