Where Are All the Children? The Shrinking of Deutschland

It is no secret that the European economy is struggling. In the face of failing banks and bankrupt governments, however, the European Union has always looked to Germany as the lone economic bright spot in the continental economy. But can Germany sustain its economic prominence? According to a recent article in The New York Times, the answer is “No.”

The problem for Germany (and most other European nations) is that fertility rates have been so low that their populations are aging and shrinking. As populations shrink, there are not enough productive workers to maintain economic growth. Therefore, economies begin to falter.

The Times describes the situation in Germany this way:

There is perhaps nowhere better than the German countryside to see the dawning impact of Europe’s plunge in fertility rates over the decades, a problem that has frightening implications for the economy and the psyche of the Continent. In some areas, there are now abundant overgrown yards, boarded-up windows and concerns about sewage systems too empty to work properly. The work force is rapidly graying, and assembly lines are being redesigned to minimize bending and lifting.

Germany has already lost 1.5 million in population according to a recent census and expects to lose another 19% (approximately 16 million) over the next 45 years. According to the Times, this attrition can almost exclusively be attributed to the low birthrate in Germany—around 1.43 children per woman. Most demographers identify a “replacement fertility rate” at 2.1 children per woman. This replacement rate is just enough to keep a population size stable.

For Germany and the rest of the European Union, the shrinking population and falling fertility rate spells economic doom for the Continent. As subsequent generations become smaller and smaller, the economic promises made to previous generations (e.g., pensions, social services, socialized medicine) become impossible to keep. Most of these social programs require more than one worker for every recipient to ensure the tax base is large enough to support the programs. Since people are retiring earlier and living longer, the number of recipients is outpacing the number of workers at an unprecedented rate.

The German government has made a few attempts to correct this problem. First, they have invested $265 billion per year in family subsidies to encourage people to have more children, but they have seen few results. Second, they are gradually raising the retirement age from 65 to 67. The Times reports:

Another way to adjust to the population decline is to get older workers to postpone retirement. The German government is raising the retirement age incrementally to 67 from 65, and companies have moved fast to adapt. The share of people ages 55 to 64 in the work force had risen to 61.5 percent in 2012, from 38.9 percent in 2002.

Volkswagen has redesigned its assembly line to ease the bending and overhead work that put excessive strain on workers’ bodies. About three years ago, they began using reclining swivel seats that provide back support even for hard-to-reach spots in the automobiles they are building, and the installation of heavy parts like wheels and front ends is now often fully automated.

Ultimately, the problem we see in Germany—and across most of the developed world—related to falling fertility rates is a values issue. In the article, the authors state that “the solution lies in remaking values, customs and attitudes in a country.”

For the authors, the values that need to be remade relate to immigration and the acceptance of working mothers. However, the values problem is much deeper than that. The value that truly needs remaking is the way a culture views children. The German culture, and that of most Western countries, is to see children as burdens and consumers rather than producers. The reality is that we all go through stages of consuming and producing. And an economy needs both.

From a biblical standpoint, children are a blessing rather than a burden. In Psalm 127:3–5, Solomon writes:

Behold, children are a gift of the LORD,
The fruit of the womb is a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior,
So are the children of one’s youth.
How blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them;
They will not be ashamed
When they speak with their enemies in the gate.

Certainly children consume more than they produce in their early years. However, as they grow and mature, they become producers and strengthen the family and social economy through their prime years until their production decreases at the latter stages of life. This is a natural progression.

The problem is that most people only consider the early stage of life when thinking about children. They are short-sighted, seeing only the consumption and not the production later in life. The other perspective that is often missed is the role of children and parents as the parent age. These children then become the care-takers of aging parents. Without these children, the elderly are left without the comfort and care of their children at the end of life.

Solomon’s wisdom speaks to more than just the perspective on children when they are young. At the end of life, these “arrows in the hand of a warrior” circle back to care for aging parents just as the parents cared for them as children. They are a blessing early in life and a blessing later in life.

We must not lose sight of the value of children from both biblical and economic perspectives.

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Evan Lenow serves as assistant professor of ethics, Bobby L. and Janis Eklund Chair of Stewardship, director of the Center for Biblical Stewardship, associate director of the Richard Land Center for Cultural Engagement, and chair of the Ethics Department at Southwestern Seminary. He writes regularly at evanlenow.com. Follow him on Twitter @EvanLenow.