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Europe Moves to Help Working Women Have Babies

The continent's declining birth rate, tied to economic factors, has made some countries try to make it less costly to have children.

July 30, 2006|Tom Hundley | Chicago Tribune

BERLIN — Everyone in Germany knows the rabenmutter.

The word translates as "raven mother" and is used to describe the kind of woman who places her toddler in day care so that she can go back to work, the implication being that she is unloving, selfish and heartless.

That characterization may sound harsh to Americans, but the idea of leaving your child in the care of someone who doesn't necessarily love it, of paying a stranger to do a mother's job just doesn't sit right with many conservative Germans.

Andrea Juchem-Fiedler, a mother of three, said she got a bit of the rabenmutter treatment from her mother and sister after she decided to return to work when her youngest child was 10 months old.

"They said, 'Isn't that a bit young to be leaving your child?' " Juchem-Fiedler recalled.

The rabenmutter complex helps explain why Germany has had the lowest birth rate in Europe for the last three decades and why a record high 30% of German women are expected to never have children.

Germany is in the throes of a baby bust. Since the mid-1960s, each new generation of Germans has been a third smaller than that of its parents. If the trend continues, the population will shrink from 83 million today to about 79 million in 2050.

At the same time, the number of retirees is ballooning. By 2020, 30% of the German population will be 60 or older. Who will fund their pensions? The ratio of workers paying into the pension system and those receiving a pension is now 2 to 1; in a decade it will be 1 to 1.

Germany is hardly alone. Across Europe, birthrates (the number of births per 1,000 of population) and fertility rates (the number of births per woman of child-bearing age) have been in a long, steep decline.

According to demographers, a population needs a fertility rate of 2.1 babies per woman to sustain itself. Germany's fertility rate is 1.37, Italy's is 1.23, and Spain's is 1.15. The U.S. has a relatively healthy rate of 2.11 births.

The European figures foretell a burgeoning demographic catastrophe that threatens to undermine the continent's economic viability and unravel its vaunted social welfare safety net. Some see it as nothing less than an existential crisis.

"What is happening when an entire continent, wealthier and healthier than ever before, declines to create the human future in the most elemental sense by creating a next generation?" asks American theologian George Weigel in an essay on the decline of religious practice in Europe.

Weigel answers his question by suggesting that there is a direct link between Europe's loss of faith and the loss of its desire to reproduce.

According to Allan Carlson, president of the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society, a conservative Christian group based in Rockford, Ill., "Europe is almost lost -- to the demographic winter and to the secularists. If Europe goes, much of the world will go with it."

He blames West European governments, saying they have adopted policies "inimical to the natural family."

Demographers are less certain about the link between faith and fertility.

Steffen Kroehnert, who studies demographic trends at the Berlin Institute for Population and Development, notes that France and the Scandinavian countries, generally regarded as among the least religious countries in Europe, are also the ones with comparatively healthy fertility rates. France has a fertility rate of 1.9; Norway 1.8.

Kroehnert also notes that the low marriage rate and high divorce rate in Scandinavian nations do not have a detrimental effect on fertility, while the high marriage and low divorce rates of Italy and Spain do not result in more babies.

What Kroehnert and other experts are discovering is that European couples want to have babies but they are inhibited mainly by work-related economic factors.

A landmark report published earlier this year by the Institute for Public Policy Research, a British think tank, suggested that if British couples could have as many children as they wanted, an additional 90,000 babies would be born each year. Similarly, a German study found that if women had as many children as they said they wanted, the fertility rate would jump to 1.75%.

"My thesis is this: All over Europe, young people -- men and women -- have similar attitudes toward children. They want to combine a career and children and they want to be financially independent from their partner," Kroehnert said.

"A society which supports this model, through its tax system and through the higher participation of women in the workplace, will produce more babies. That's why you are seeing higher birth rates in France and the Scandinavian countries," he said.

Governments are slowly coming to grips with the problem. In Russia, which has seen its population shrink by 700,000 a year due to sharply falling fertility rates, President Vladimir V. Putin has proposed a one-time payout of $9,000 upon the birth of a second child. With the average monthly wage in Russia about $300, the amount is substantial.

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