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Fertility and Decadence in Germany

In an unintentional contribution to the “fertility and decadence” debate provoked by Ross Douthat, the Frankfurter Allgemeiner Zeitung has a piece on Germany’s birthrate, which is among the lowest in the world. Here is a translation of the report, which is based on a study by the Federal Institute for Demographic Research in Wiesbaden:

In 2010, Germany’s birthrate amounted to 1.39. Within Europe, Latvia lagged behind with a figure of 1.17 children per woman, while Iceland led the statistics with 2.2 children, followed by Ireland (2.07), Turkey (2.04), France (2.01), Sweden (1.98) and Norway (1.95).

Why is Germany’s birthrate so low, despite its comparatively strong economy and significant subsidies for families? The piece suggests two reasons. First, Germans are less likely than other Europeans to believe that their personal satisfaction or social status will be increased by having children. In this sense, it seems, Germany is not a very “child-friendly” society.

At the same time, Germans are more likely to believe that children suffer from the lack of a “good mother”–namely, one who stays at home. That isn’t because there’s insufficient daycare or other services. A majority of German women, especially in the West, report that they could not in good conscience entrust their children to someone else.

So while Germans expect relatively small personal and social benefits from childbearing, they see childrearing as an extremely intensive activity. That makes family a low-reward, high-investment arrangement. With these attitudes, it’s no wonder that they have few children.

As Douthat argues, this is a matter of culture, not economic incentives. What’s more, it fits his account of decadence, in which the sacrifices of time and energy involved in reproduction don’t seem worth it.

But the FAZ article suggests that Douthat has the reasons for this calculation wrong, at least when it comes to Germany. It’s not that Germans don’t care enough about the future to have babies. In a sense, the problem is that they care too much: children seem like an unacceptable burden precisely because Germans (especially German women) place so much emphasis on being good parents.

There may be a lesson here for the United States. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that the birthrate has fallen as cultural expectations for parents have increased. It’s no longer considered enough to pay the bills and provide a stable household. Young parents, especially those of the upper-middle class, think they must also provide exceptional schooling, a culturally enriching homelife, fairly luxurious material surroundings, and on and on.

Doing all that for one child is hard enough. But to do so for two or three is almost unimaginable, particularly because it is almost certain to require two full-time salaries.

If high expectations for responsible parenting are important obstacles to reproduction, the social changes needed to promote fertility might be counterintuitive. Rather than encouraging people to value children more highly, advocates for family like Douthat might have more success if they argued that children are not such a big deal. In doing so, they’d be going against the grain of a major current of modern morality, which insists on the priority of children’s perspectives and needs to adults (this begins with Rousseau). But that could be what’s necessary to reverse the trend toward shrinking population in Europe–and the United States.

about the author

Samuel Goldman is an assistant professor of political science and director of the Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom at George Washington University. He earned a Ph.D. in political science from Harvard, where he has also taught writing. In addition to The American Conservative, Goldman’s work has appeared in The New Criterion, The Wall Street Journal, and Maximumrocknroll. Follow him on Twitter.

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