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Immigration won’t solve Germany’s birth rates crisis

Is Germany's future secure? Credit: Getty

May 4, 2024 - 8:00am

Few countries fear the power of demography as much as Germany. Newly released figures show that the country’s birth rate has fallen to its lowest in a decade — cue predictions of economic doom and knee-jerk suggestions for Germany to fill the predicted shortfall of people through immigration. Yet that approach would create more problems than it would solve. Falling birth rates are more than a statistic. They deserve public discussion, not sticking-plaster solutions.

There is no doubt that the situation is serious. Only 693,000 babies were born in Germany last year, a decline of 6.2% from the previous year. Even then, German women had just 1.46 children on average when 2.1 are required to keep population levels steady. There will be fewer Germans overall, which also means fewer women of childbearing age, and so the demographic downward spiral continues.

This is an enormously consequential process with ramifications for all areas of public life. Yet, in Germany, reports of falling birthrates are treated primarily as economic news. The social security system relies on the taxes of the young to directly pay for the pensions of the old. With potentially fewer workers paying in as people get older and older, the imbalance threatens to break the system. News of an ageing society invariably creates personal fear for Germans alongside economic gloom.

Rather than identifying causes for the ongoing drop in birth rates, the issue is often reduced to its most immediate economic consequence: the workforce problem. The German economy has lamented the lack of both skilled and unskilled workers for years. The Institute for Economic Research, an influential Munich-based think tank, calls it “one of the biggest challenges for businesses in Germany”.

Demanding a quick fix, Germany’s Federal Employment Agency wants demographic change to be combatted by attracting 400,000 immigrants a year to the country. Other economic experts go further. Monika Schnitzer, chairwoman of the German Council of Economic Experts which advises Olaf Scholz’s government, says 1.5 million immigrants annually are needed.

What is presented as pure economic policy would have huge cultural, social and political ramifications. Nearly half the children under the age of five in Germany already have a “migration background”, meaning they are first- or second-generation immigrants. People without a German passport have significantly higher birth rates than those with citizenship. So while the economy would receive more workers with increased migration, the country would also change drastically and irrevocably without its citizens’ consent.

High levels of immigration are already causing a huge political backlash in the rise of the Right-wing party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and the formation of a new Left-wing but anti-immigration party under former communist Sahra Wagenknecht. As the political centre loses ground, coalitions will become more difficult to form, potentially making individual states and the country more difficult to govern. Alongside the political strife, social tensions are on the rise. Violent attacks against refugees rose last year, as did crimes committed by them.

The issue of demographic change is too complex to be solved purely by economic minds. Many young couples are reluctant to have children while war and multiple crises create uncertainty. “People need life affirmation and optimism to decide to have a child,” one expert told the German press. Others have pointed to improving childcare provision or financial stability for young families so that work and family life aren’t mutually exclusive. Other solutions could involve a managed population decline in which the pension system is reformed and the economy restructured.

Immigration may well be part of Germany’s response to demographic change, but it’s not the panacea it’s presented as. Population decline is not an issue for economic experts alone to decide as it goes well beyond their expertise and remit. It concerns society as a whole and should be tackled with democratic consent, not spreadsheet politics.


Katja Hoyer is a German-British historian and writer. She is the author, most recently, of Beyond the Wall: East Germany, 1949-1990.

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Ian Barton
Ian Barton
20 days ago

Unless left-wing parties everywhere adopt anti-immigration policies, all the rest of their agendas will remain unimplemented. Possibly the Germans have learnt from the Danes.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
19 days ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

I don’t think the “German have learnt from the Danes”, perhaps you mean to say “Germans should or need to learn from the Danes”. Interestingly, Danish immigration rules or you might say restrictions are implemented by the Social Democratic government led by Mette Frederiksen. No German government, and certainly not one led by the German Social Democrats, would dare to be that ‘drastic’. That has to do with Germany’s Nazi past and its consequent desire to be ‘good’ to redeem itself from the past. The past, particularly when it’s that dark and horrible, does cast a long shadow.

William Brand
William Brand
20 days ago

Immigration means replacement of the existing population unless they can assimilate into the existing population. Some groups cannot assimilate into a western state. Moslems are the worst. Their Koran demands that any assimilation work the other way. It assumes military conquest followed by discrimination against non-citizens with citizenship restricted to Moslems. Discrimination causes conversion by Atheists seeking citizenship since a quick conversion gives citizenship. The next generation will be sincere Moslems. Moslem immigrants into western nations all work to demand that they be the ruling group and everyone else become Moslem. They refuse to melt into westerners demanding that westerners melt into Moslems. They try to create a civil war to create the standard Moslem state conversion system. Islamic Shira law conflicts with western law and Moslems see this is against God. They demand that Shira law be adopted by everyone. Any western country that admits Moslems gets a viper in its citizenship array.

David McKee
David McKee
19 days ago
Reply to  William Brand

Well, Mr. Brand, you have more or less rehashed what Narendra Modi is saying in India. He and his party portray India’s 200m Muslims as infiltrators, determined to supplant Hinduism with love jihads, land jihads and (the very latest in Indian conspiracy theories) vote jihads.

The difference between you and Modi is that you have no power to inflict harm on Muslims. Modi does, and both he and his followers are using it to increasingly murderous effect.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
19 days ago
Reply to  David McKee

You said a lot of things there about Modi and about the commenter but none of it actually suggests the commenter is wrong or gives any reasons why. Crying racism is not an argument.

Danny D
Danny D
20 days ago

Concise and to the point. Immigration *can* be part of the solution, but only if the idea of multi-culturalism is abandoned, and immigrants instead forced to assimilate. I have little hope that that will happen in a country where some ministers reject the idea of their nation even *having* a culture and other ministers using slurs to insult the native population.

The denazification program was the worst genocide to date. It was necessary in some form, but it seems to have gone way too far and led to self hate and self denial such that the German people might simply cease to exist. Then again, Germans have a tendency to blindly follow authority and can probably flip from their current self-destructive ideology back to raging nationalism quicker than we think.

Alexander Thirkill
Alexander Thirkill
15 days ago
Reply to  Danny D

“The denazification program was the worst genocide to date. It was necessary in some form, but it seems to have gone way too far and led to self hate and self denial such that the German people might simply cease to exist.”

Are you having a laugh mate?!!

Young German adults choosing not to have, or having fewer children is not a genocide!

Just because it’s Germany, you don’t have to suddenly go to Godwin’s law.

The author is german, hence the focus, but the issue is pretty common place across many advanced countries – South Korea, Japan, Italy all spring immediately to mind.

I’m also not sure whether any developed country has found a solution to persistently low fertility rates.

Having two young kids myself, in the UK, I can tell you it’s ruinously expensive and is terrifically hard to square with modern, high intensity careers.

I wished we’d stopped at one. That’d be my advice to any couple 10 years younger than me, unless your family income is well above 100k, or you live in cheap area. Context, I live in Surrey.

Francis Twyman
Francis Twyman
19 days ago

It’s the decline of the west, too stupid to have their own children, and then they criticize immigration, it’s a farce really. It’s not just Germany, it’s the same for most western countries. Of course they need people, they need people to work and sustain the social programs that are in place and the economy. Otherwise everything collapses.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
19 days ago
Reply to  Francis Twyman

Well the corporatist model where corporations are able to capture ever increasing shares of the total profits because workers are cheap and replaceable certainly collapses but that needs to happen at some point. It will almost certainly result in political turmoil while the aristocrats try everything to delay the reckoning as long as possible. importing people from wherever they can as long as they can. Then of course there will be a difficult transitionary period, probably a depression, as the economy reorients itself. New approaches will be found. Waste will be eliminated. We’ll learn to do more with less and cut out luxuries, like labor heavy industries such as retail and food service. We will travel much less and replace the the real with the virtual. AI will manage many tasks. When you stop and think about it, AI is a pretty timely invention. A great way to reduce the need for human labor right as we’re about to face a labor shortage.

Rob N
Rob N
19 days ago

Clearly the Pill, and its inevitable consequences, had an enormous impact which are only recently obvious to all but still not being discussed in any ‘polite society’.

Eleanor O'Keeffe
Eleanor O'Keeffe
19 days ago
Reply to  Rob N

If women are choosing not to reproduce, the answer is not to take the choice from them. The answer is to make reproduction more appealing.

Most – though not of course all – women WANT to give birth to and raise children. If she can’t find stable accommodation or cannot otherwise support her child, a would-be mother may decide to remain childless. A sad outcome for her no less than for society.

Rob N
Rob N
17 days ago

In theory that sounds good but we are human and too many of us, like me, delayed kids because we could and waiting for the ‘right’ time.

Sometimes life needs to help push us forwards.

And of course if she doesn’t want kids she could abstain from sex. Difficult as nature has made sex appealing to encourage us to have kids but doable. Pill and abortion do not have to be the methods of birth control.

Victor James
Victor James
19 days ago

What birth rate crisis? In the age of machine labour, this is backwards thinking.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
19 days ago

Well there certainly are economic consequences here but they are shared by many countries around the world. I think the most under appreciated consequence is that the work force ages and becomes complacent. Ageing populations ( e.g. china, japan, germany Italy,)will not compete well with young, hungry dynamic countries such as India and Nigeria over the next 50 years or so. The young mind is just more ambitious and creative.
I dont know why countries go in to a demographic spiral. I suppose the harsh truth is that we are just too individualistic and distracted to plan families which is a shame.
Families are fun and children bring immense happiness and joy.

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
19 days ago

A nation that aborts itself into oblivion doesn’t deserve to exist …..

Brian Kneebone
Brian Kneebone
19 days ago

The TFR has been under 2.1 for all or most of the last 50 years in England, for example. Not a new phenomenon. Without net immigration the population would
have peaked a generation ago. Population growth has been a factor in economic growth since the industrial revolution.
Maybe we need a new economic model, not ponzi economics.
Perhaps keep an eye on South Korea for such to emerge.
I live in Australia, and like Canada, we are primarily focused on massive immigration based aggregate economic growth, the old model on steroids. We are still the lucky but stupid country. No chance of a new economic model originating down under.

David Morley
David Morley
19 days ago

Yet, in Germany, reports of falling birthrates are treated primarily as economic news.

Given their history, is it even possible for Germans to talk about this in any other terms? Even to raise the possibility of the disappearance of the Germans as an historical people (Volk) summons up the spectre of the nazi past. And yet the numbers suggest this is a real possibility.

james elliott
james elliott
18 days ago

I fail to see how bringing in a million migrants a year, 95% of whom are men, the vast majority of whom do *not* possess the education and skills base the labour market needs, can fix any problems for Germany.

In short, I do not believe that the reason behind the push to bring tens of millions of male MENA immigrants into Europe has anything at all to do with improving Europe.

I suspect the aim is to cripple and balkanize European populations to make them easier to govern.

Let’s be honest, the Germans have had ideas this disastrous before.

Nell Clover
Nell Clover
18 days ago

This is fundamentally a question of access to and acceptance of birth control. Not crises. Not financial instability. The highest birth rates in Germany are amongst immigrants, and the highest birth rates in the world are in the failed states, i.e., those least financially secure and most likely to have first hand experience of some sort of social or economic crisis.

Without birth control, there could be no casual sex, no discussion about career versus children, there’d be no real choice other than abstinence, and that’s a choice most humans refuse to make. Many, many more women would fall pregnant sooner and have more children, and culture would then once align with the reality of most women being mothers. This is self evident.

Even with universal birth control, acceptance of it strongly varies with culture and values, not economics. This result is evident in the persistently different birth rates between different ethnic groups in Western countries even after adjusting for education and economic status. Sure, birth rates fall, but Germany’s average of 1.46 hides a more startling difference between those of a migrant background and “ethnic” Germans.

Fundamentally, German – and Western – culture makes contraception freely available and then from the earliest days in school and throughout the media promotes self-actualisation, career, and consumption. Feminism is just one of many political movements that express one or more of these entitlements. The result was always going to be a very low birth rate. So ingrained are self-actualisation, career, and consumption in our idea of Western culture that we Westerners would probably defend our right to self-actualisation even nas the last baby is born and our culture seals its own extinction.

Let us not kid ourselves. The modern Western culture’s birth rate will remain below replacement from here until the end of time. Without immigration, the continent would become vacant as its neighbours’ populations soar. Those neighbours wouldn’t ignore the possibilities for themselves of a half empty continent. It’s immigration now or immigration later if we remain wedded to modern Western culture. Complaints of population replacement are like resigning from your job and then moaning they’ve hired a new employee.

Martin M
Martin M
17 days ago

Without birth control, there could be no casual sex, no discussion about career versus children, there’d be no real choice other than abstinence, and that’s a choice most humans refuse to make. Many, many more women would fall pregnant sooner and have more children, and culture would then once align with the reality of most women being mothers. This is self evident.
What a dystopian world that would be.