BERLIN -- You can't walk through Prenzlauerberg and Mitte, two regentrified neighborhoods in what was formerly East Berlin, without bumping into a baby carriage. When I walk with my 2-year-old twin granddaughters, bundled up against a German winter that is still hard on the land, many women stop to chat. Nearly all are in their late 30s.
A new survey finds that Germany has the lowest birthrate in the European Union, but you wouldn't know it here. However, these women are running against the trend. Last year, Germany suffered the steepest declines of births in 15 years, a drop of 4 percent or 30,000 births, from 2004. The Berlin daily Die Welt ran the news under the headline: "Baby Shock: "'We Germans are Dying Out.'"
Germany is not alone as a prosperous country with births falling far below replacement levels, but it has its own reasons. High unemployment creates insecurity, and many professionals don't want the responsibility of balancing work and family. Germans tend to stay in college longer than students in other countries, and young people get used to a carefree life paid for by Germans with jobs. Germans call a university the nation's most effective form of contraception.
Before the decade of the '90s, almost 60 percent of German women between the ages of 25 and 29 had had a baby. That figure is closer to 30 percent today. The birth dearth has relentless implications; 100,000 more Germans die than are born every year. Pessimists estimate that the current population of 82 million could fall to 50 million by 2050, giving new meaning to the phrase "Old Europe."
Chancellor Angela Merkel is trying to turn things around, but it won't be easy. She has put a cabinet minister in charge of family issues and urges her to be a different role model. Ursula von der Leyen, a petite blonde, is a mother of seven children who holds herself out as an example of how a woman can produce a big family and still work outside the home.
Not everyone agrees that making babies as a career choice is a good idea. Older Germans recall the propaganda of the Third Reich that encouraged women to become "breeders," to give up work outside the home to produce soldiers for the fatherland. Some women still call a working mother a "rabenmutter," or raven mother, a pejorative term popularized in the 1930s. Younger women who don't want children say they look at motherhood as the childless Angela Merkel once did: "It just did not fit in with my career path."
Some professional women describe the stay-at-home mom with the patronizing word "hausmutterchen," which means "a cute little housewife" saddled with a stupid and uneducated choice. Many Germans are not particularly child-friendly, easily irritated by the presence of young children in restaurants and markets. Younger women cite the failure of Superwoman to do it all -- to make the dumplings and to bring home the sausage, too. Says the editor of a family magazine: "It isn't sexy to have children in Germany."
Many of the young mothers I meet, like their counterparts in America, work in part-time jobs. Most take advantage of state-sponsored day care, which enables a family to pay on the basis of its income, but there's a shortage of space and the good day-care centers have waiting lists. It doesn't get easier when the children get older because most schools close at 1:30 p.m. Angela Merkel prescribes greater tax breaks for child care and more nurseries for day care, to encourage women to have both babies and jobs. But that would increase government spending. She wants to raise the retirement age by two years, from 65 to 67, but that's not exactly a crowd-pleaser with the seniors.
Like other countries with an increasingly aging population and low birthrates, a limited workforce can't pay for the social security benefits, health coverage, unemployment compensation, pension plans and senior care of an extravagant welfare state. In Germany last year, 42 percent of women between 34 and 40 in academic careers were childless. This is double the rate in France. Certain analysts say that soon half of the university graduates will be childless, prompting one German politician to say the unsayable, that the "wrong people" are having children. This raised a furor. Muslims, for whom there is anything but a birth dearth, accused him of insulting them.
German women produce 1.2 children each, on average. The French rate is 1.90, the British is 1.74. A fertility rate of 2.1 births is the minimal replacement level in developed countries. My strolls on the sidewalks of Prenzlauerberg and Mitte tell me that some women have got the message. But babies have a long way to go, baby.