There are more people living in Germany than ever before, and yet demographic change poses just as much of a threat to our future as climate change. This is due to a number of often overlooked connections, which is why we often misjudge the dynamics and consequences of the impending changes.

The economy is calling ever louder for skilled workers, but finding them ever more rare. But what we are currently experiencing is only a gentle breeze in the beginning storm of demographic change, which is slowly but powerfully approaching. After a brief peak, the German birth rate has plummeted in the last two years, foreshadowing what is to come for the whole world. A team of researchers from the University of Washington reports in the journal “The Lancet” that by the end of this century the population in 198 of the world’s 204 countries will shrink.

Although there are currently more people living in Germany than ever before in our history, the population growth of recent years is solely due to immigration and will not change our demographic problems in the long term, as it can only temporarily halt the shrinking and aging of the population, but not permanently stop it. In addition, it will become increasingly difficult in the future to compensate for our lack of births through immigration, as more and more countries will be competing for less and less qualified immigrants.

But why do we often not notice this impending danger at all?

We cannot oversee demographic changes in the horizon of our own lifetime. However, an example calculation can easily illustrate how dramatically the population of a country can change within just a few generations:

With the current German total fertility rate of 1.4 children per woman, 1,000 women and 1,000 men (i.e. 2,000 people) will have 1,400 children. That is 700 men and 700 women. If they have an average of 1.4 children, that is 980 offspring. The third generation is therefore only half the size of the first! The fifth shrinks to a quarter, the seventh to an eighth of the original size.

Heiko Rehmann studied philosophy, German studies, comparative religious studies and demography in Tübingen, Berlin and Edinburgh. Today he works as a freelance journalist and high school teacher in Stuttgart, gives lectures and records podcasts. He investigates the influence of intellectual history and demographic developments on our society today, in particular the topics of freedom and responsibility, the individual and society, demography and migration.

Since the number of potential mothers in each new generation is lower than in the previous one and these in turn have fewer children than would be necessary to maintain the population (2.1 children per woman), the population shrinks faster and faster from generation to generation because women who have never been born cannot have children. At a certain point, this exponential population shrinkage will be unstoppable because there will no longer be enough potential mothers to reverse the trend. We will then be caught in an unstoppable downward spiral.

“In two generations, the matter will be settled,” says Harald Michel, director of the Institute for Applied Demography in Berlin. “Change will then no longer be possible.”

As long as the mountain of baby boomers obscures the small group of future parents, we will not notice the demographic catastrophe. It will take decades to become visible, but then it will be almost impossible to correct. If we were to have 2.1 children per woman again from tomorrow, the population would continue to shrink for another half century and only then stabilize at around 40 million inhabitants, because the birth rate depends on the total fertility rate (TFR) and the number of women of childbearing age.

As long as this shrinks, the absolute number of births also shrinks, even if the total fertility rate rises again. The birth rate indicates the number of births per 1,000 inhabitants per year, while the total fertility rate indicates how many children a woman would have in the course of her life if she behaved like women in a particular year. In 2023, this figure in Germany was 1.36 children per woman.

One often hears the objection: “But forecasts are always uncertain!” Demographers, however, do not make forecasts but rather projections: all women who could potentially have children in the next 15 years have already been born. So we know this number exactly. If we use the total fertility rate of 1.4 children per woman, which has been fairly stable since the 1970s, we can also calculate the number of children they will have. If they have just as few children, which is what all experts assume so far, the size of the next generations can also be calculated exactly.

Such calculations lead to the most reliable predictions we can make: a UN projection in 1958 was able to determine the world population in the year 2000 with an error of 3.5 percent!

When the baby boomers of the 1960s reach retirement age in 2025, the social systems will be in trouble because fewer and fewer taxpayers will have to finance more and more pensioners. Sooner or later they will collapse. Today we already subsidize the statutory pension insurance with more than 100 billion euros of tax revenue each year. Money that today’s pensioners consume will have to be paid back in the future by children who were never born! The pension insurance lives from hand to mouth: what we pay in today ends up in a retiree’s account tomorrow.

We are mistaken if we believe that our contributions are a cushion for our own future. If we do not raise enough future contributors, the intergenerational contract cannot work. Added to this is the mountain of debt from the current years of prosperity, which will of course not shrink along with the population. Bremen economist Gunnar Heinsohn rightly warns that Germany could overburden its few young talents in terms of taxes and ultimately drive them abroad.

But even if we save privately, it will help us less than we think, because we cannot bake the bread today that we want to eat tomorrow, and a fat bank account will not look after the elderly. The fewer workers there are in the future, the more they will cost to pay. Saving money to keep up with this development is a race we cannot win. We will not be able to fill the growing gaps in the job market with money. Those who are poached from one job will be missing somewhere else. Demographics cannot be outsmarted. Without children, there is no future.

In addition, demographic change causes other problems:

Our country’s real estate markets and infrastructure are designed for the current number of inhabitants. The impending population implosion will render trillions worth of assets useless, and dismantling them will be far more difficult to organize than building them up. In addition, our innovative power will diminish. Older people generally no longer take new risks. Social and economic structures are in danger of collapsing, which could result in a loss of prosperity of 630 billion euros by 2030 alone, according to calculations by the consulting firm Korn-Ferry.

At this point, you hear it almost reflexively: “Yes, but we can still bring in immigrants!” This is exactly the goal that the federal government is pursuing with the demographic strategy adopted in 2012 and the new immigration law. In fact, without the immigration of the past decades, we would only be 63 million today, as the Federal Statistical Office reported in its press release of August 1, 2017. What has worked reasonably well so far will, however, create new problems in the future.

In order to keep the number of employed people aged 15 to 64 constant, 24 million people would have to immigrate to Germany by 2050, as the United Nations showed in its 2001 study “replacement migration”. Currently, economist Monika Schnitzer is calling for 1.5 million immigrants per year to compensate for the shortage of skilled workers.

However, in the future there will be fewer and fewer immigrants from Europe who have high qualifications and a similar mentality and who usually integrate without any problems, as all of our neighbouring countries have the same problems.

We will be able to attract immigrants primarily from the Arab and African regions, as these are the only regions where the population will continue to grow until the middle of the century. However, these people are rarely qualified enough for the German labor market. The result would be immigration into the social systems, which would not solve our problems but would actually make them worse. And in the second half of the century it will be difficult to attract any immigrants at all, as almost all countries in the world will be struggling with the same problems, as we can now see that most countries are following Europe’s social and demographic development in fast-forward.

Even in several African countries, birth rates have plummeted in recent years. In the second half of this century, the dominant issue will no longer be the population explosion but the global shortage of workers.

But even if we were able to attract enough qualified immigrants, we would not be able to solve the demographic problem, because we would have to keep increasing immigration from generation to generation due to the exponential decline in the population, without doing anything to address the underlying problem of the far too low total fertility rate. The rate is hardly higher among qualified immigrants than among natives. Therefore, although qualified immigration can temporarily fill the gaps in the labour market, it is not a sustainable solution.

Immigration as a situational solution to a structural problem therefore makes as much sense as trying to fill a barrel full of holes with water.

It would also become increasingly difficult to maintain our level of education, as the children of educated immigrants also have to learn German as well as possible if they want to achieve a higher education. However, this becomes more difficult the fewer native speakers there are in their area. A falling level of education would be fatal.

In addition, it is by no means certain that successful integration into the labor market will also be followed by successful integration into society and culture. Professional qualifications do not automatically lead to a Western way of life.

Since a person’s attitudes and values ​​are primarily shaped by their parents and passed on from generation to generation in families, the state has much less influence on the future development of immigrants than it thinks. We can decide who comes and how many. What becomes of them and their children is only in our hands to a limited extent.

Nor can anyone predict whether and how coexistence will work in an increasingly diverse and constantly changing society.

Therefore, any society that takes in immigrants on a significant scale is taking a risk. The rules of coexistence would have to be renegotiated again and again between the different population groups. The social trust without which our coexistence would not work decreases with increasing ethnic diversity, as the sociologist Robert Putnam has shown in a widely acclaimed study. Social instability and conflict could be the result.

If the total fertility rate remains at its current level and if we try to solve the problem through immigration alone, at a certain point there will no longer be a majority society into which new arrivals can integrate.   It is true that immigrants will become Germans over time and can help the new arrivals of the next generation to integrate. But since integration takes time and these processes are accelerating, the thread of cultural tradition is in danger of breaking. In two or three generations, Germany could become a multi-ethnic state in which there will no longer be any bond holding the different groups together, as demographer Herwig Birg fears.   Nobody can predict with certainty whether this irreversible experiment will be a success.

“Culturally and socially this will not be feasible,” Harald Michel is certain.

Example calculation for 1000 men and 1000 women:   From the third generation onwards, with a constant fertility rate of 1.4 children, more immigrants and their descendants than “ethnic Germans” would have to live in Germany in order to keep the population stable.

We can compensate for the population decline for a while by increasing productivity, increasing the female employment rate and the retirement age. However, these measures will largely be exhausted in the foreseeable future. Economist Thomas Straubhaar sees artificial intelligence and increasing robotization as another possible solution, but overlooks the fact that machines do not pay taxes and cannot maintain social structures. Or would you like your children to be taught by computers and cared for by robots when you are old?

The only options left are to increase immigration or to increase the birth rate. Several countries have already proven that the latter is possible. France and the Scandinavian countries have been achieving consistently high birth rates for decades through good childcare and targeted tax incentives that primarily encourage the birth of second and third children.

Our problems are obviously linked to the structure of our society and cannot be solved permanently by immigration, as this only fills gaps without addressing the causes of the deficit. Therefore, we must change the structures that are responsible for the low birth rate. Even if this will not be easy, we must at least try, because ultimately it is our future that is at stake.

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One of these dysfunctional structures is the construction of our intergenerational contract, which has been criticized several times by the Federal Constitutional Court: Parents invest around 175,000 euros more in each child than they get back in tax relief and family benefits, as calculated by the Bavarian Consumer Center. But since children help finance the entire social system through their contributions when they grow up, the people who currently benefit most from having children are those who don’t have any. Not even the SPD addresses this self-destructive injustice.

Even more serious is the fact that women and men in modern societies are faced with a dilemma that traditional societies hardly know at all: life with children is opposed to other life plans and in some cases excludes them. It is often difficult to reconcile work and children. The loss of the income of a doctor or lawyer, i.e. the so-called opportunity costs, cannot be compensated for by even the highest child benefit, and it cannot give women the meaning and fulfillment that a career brings. Of course, children also bring fulfillment that a career cannot provide, but often that is simply not enough to make the decision to have children.

Martin Bujard, research director at the Federal Institute for Population Research (BIB), has shown in his study “Family policy and birth rate” that all measures that improve the compatibility of family and career have a significant influence on the birth rate – such as part-time work and good childcare infrastructure. In particular, daycare places for children under three have a positive effect. This is not surprising. This reduces the conflict between “child and career”, which also helps to lower the opportunity cost of having children.

In many cases, more flexible working structures in the sense of “breathing CVs” would be even more helpful.

The option time model presented by social and legal scientists Karin Jurczyk and Ulrich Mückenberger in March 2020 is particularly suitable for this. Each employee would therefore be given a time budget of 9 years. Of these, 6 years would be earmarked for childcare and caring for relatives in need of care, 2 years for further training and 1 year for personal time off. For each additional child, an additional year would be added, as several children can be cared for at the same time if the time gap is not too great.

These “option periods” could be used flexibly over the course of a person’s life as needed through “drawing rights”, either in the form of a break from gainful employment or as part-time work, which would extend the periods mentioned accordingly. What is already partly possible today in the form of individual legal entitlements, but still represents the exception to the rule of “normal employment”, would become the norm under this model. Every employee would have a legal right to their option periods, just as they would have return and remuneration rights. In the case of care activities (child and elderly care as well as community work), these would be financed from tax revenues, companies would have to finance further training periods through a pool, while personal time off should largely be financed from their own reserves.

We could ease the “rush hour of life” that causes so many parents problems by using the option time model. “Perhaps more women and men would then have the courage to realize their desire to have children,” says Karin Jurczyk.

This could be made easier by supporting framework conditions such as company daycare centers, home office, tax exemption from the third child, a pension level staggered according to the number of children, public services that relieve parents of as much time as possible and by restructuring society to make it more child-friendly. “Either we will have no more children at some point, or society will be more responsive to the needs of parents,” says Karin Jurczyk.

However, so far, longer breaks from work have usually led to a setback in one’s career, which is the main reason why women have lower lifetime earnings. Employers should develop programs that allow women and men to stay in touch with the company while taking time off to look after their families, while keeping their specialist knowledge up to date. “What kind of society do we want to live in? Employers need to ask themselves that too,” warns Jurczyk.

This may not be easy and some employers may not like it, but if we do nothing, the future of our country and Europe will be bleak, especially for those who do not have children of their own.

(Collaboration: Dr. Konrad Schmidt)

This text comes from an expert from the FOCUS online EXPERTS Circle. Our experts have a high level of specialist knowledge in their subject area and are not part of the editorial team. Find out more.