Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Neither Seen Nor Heard - Why Germans aren't having children

Perhaps it is just human nature, but there is a common perception that today’s rapidly globalizing society is experiencing stresses and strains of a nature and intensity not endured by previous generations. That may reflect a certain presumption, as previous generations had to deal with wars, economic depressions, political persecutions and the resulting waves of immigration. Nonetheless, modern media assures that we are sensitized to and reminded frequently of a vast array of problems unique to our current situation.

None of these problems is more existential than the dramatically falling birthrates in developed countries, and Germany is at the forefront of these declines. The numbers are sobering: female fertility in Germany is currently at 1.3 children per woman of childbearing age, significantly below the minimum “replacement rate” of 2.1 (the number of children needed to keep total population levels stable).

This low birthrate presents some inevitable, and inevitably dismal, prospects for German society. The current total national population of 85 million is expected to decline to close to 60 million by the year 2050. This means that Germany is likely to lose its preeminent position as the most populous country in the European Union, falling to second place behind France. This assumes, of course, that fast-growing Turkey has not ascended to the first place by that time, or that no other more prodigious members are accepted to the EU club.

The very real implications of these demographic trends are already starting to materialize: in the state of Brandenburg, (the area surrounding the national capital, Berlin), more than one-third of all primary schools are set to close within the next five years. The children that would need those schools are simply not being born.

The reasons for what has been characterized as an impending demographic catastrophe for Germany have been analyzed ad nauseam in the popular press, on television talk shows, in beer gardens and at cocktail parties across the country. Some attribute the decline to inadequate state-financed child care for infants and pre-school children. Others point to long-term increases in workforce participation by women, with the resulting time demands and decreasing “availability for motherhood.” Still others link the situation to increasing levels of education, with German women now surpassing their male counterparts in terms of level of education completed.

As a foreigner living in Germany for more than six years, I think the answer to this conundrum lies elsewhere. It has to do with the fundamental sense of “order” at the base of German society. This is combined with the fact that over time, children have become, for a variety of reasons, more “disorderly.” With this disorder, comes, not surprisingly, noise.

What brought me to this conclusion was an article in the Financial Times Deutschland, one of the country’s leading daily business newspapers. The story (“Whooping according to the technical limitations on noise” – March 23, 2007 by Kai Beller) describes the efforts of the Federal Parliament’s Children Commission (Kinderkommision des Bundestages) to find some form of national principle to regulate noise production by children.

The matter reached national attention when in 2005 a local judge in Hamburg ruled in favor of a complaint by residents in a neighborhood where a Kindergarten was located demanding that the Kindergarten be forced to move premises due to unacceptably high levels of noise created by the young students. Because the judge’s decision made reference to federal emission protection legislation, (Bundesimmissionsschutzgesetz), the issue was propelled beyond a purely local dispute.

Germany is a country of engineers. This can be seen in the preeminence of its automotive industry for high-end vehicles, as well as in a seemingly endless array of products and services requiring the best technical standards. It is not for nothing that Germany leads the world in terms of high-technology exports, surpassing both the United States and Japan, countries with populations that are two- to three-times larger than Germany, respectively.

There is a dark side to this fascination with superlative engineering: the irresistible tendency to apply technical tools to almost every imaginable type of activity, not excluding the care of young children. Kindergartens, according to the Environment Ministry, are actually “Technical Installations” (Technische Anlagen). As such, they are subject to the same kinds of regulations as industrial facilities.

The words used in the course of the public debate (including members of Parliament; the Children’s Commission and the Environment Ministry) would sound bizarre in any other country. “The behaviorally-related noise of children cannot be avoided by the current state of technology,” commented a representative of the Environment Ministry. Furthermore, one has to deal with the “vital expressions of life” which children inevitably issue.

Technical matters require metrics, and here, of course, the Germans lack nothing. There are official decibel limitations for different types of children’s activities: Playing is 81.3 dB; Eating 80.2 dB; Gymnastics 86.2 dB. Put in the perspective of an industrial drill at 90 dB and it is easy to see how children can present a problem. In the case of many localities, maximum permissible sound levels may not surpass 50 dB. Some localities go further to specify an average acceptable sound level for schools of between 78 and 88 dB, with an “impulse allowance for whoops of joy” (it sounds so much better in German: “Impulszuschläge für lautes Aufjuchzen”) of an extra 8 dB.

Oh my dear, the little ones can be so bothersome. True, it was the Victorian English who invented the dictum, “Children should be seen but not heard.” The Germans, I am convinced, have taken this one step further: what does not exist, cannot make noise. So in the Germany of the future, the children will not be heard, because they simply will not be.

Berlin, July 2007

(©2007 Ned Wiley)


Ted Wiley said...

Ned: to my eyes the official and public attitudes are indeed "bizarre"; I cannot imagine such responses elsewhere in the Western world. I am surprised it was not published by The Economist if you sent it as an opinion letter.
Ted said...


Check out Japan. They are collapsing even faster than Germany as their racist attitudes prohibit almost all immigration. Projections are a 50% decline in population within a generation and a period of a retired majority too large to be supported by the working population.

Here in the US (U-S-A!, U-S-A!) we are increasing population only because of our large immigration, both legal and as we say now, undocumented. The citizenry on its own is below the replacement rate.

Clearly the German government needs to prohibit the use of email spam filters and provide tax credits to those few German men who can prove they don't need physical enhancement products while the rest of the male population needs subsidized access to these civilization-saving products.

I'm confident that in this crisis you are rising to the opportunity to help your adopted country.