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Germany and its approximately 81 million people exemplify the population trends experienced by many developed countries. Populations are stagnating and beginning to decline, which would lead to smaller workforces and a shift in age distributions as the numbers of elderly increase. In Germany’s case, the decline is relatively small, but it presents the issue of how to ensure future population stability. The causes of decline can be linked to Germany’s economic development and its social consequences.
The German population is getting older; the median age is about forty-six. According to the CIA World Factbook, there is now a larger proportion of Germans within the 45-49 and 50-54 age groups and there are fewer people in the younger brackets. This more top-heavy age structure is indicative of a population in decline, and as of 2014, Germany’s has been slowly shrinking at the rate of -0.18 percent. Even with an average infant mortality rate of 3.46 deaths per 1,000 births—among the lowest in the world—there are simply not enough births to replace the existing population. Despite the low birth rate, the decline has been kept slow due to the net migration rate of 1.06 migrants per 1,000 population. The rate of migration has decreased relative to the past decade, but is expected to rise gradually in the coming years. Of the migrants that entered the country in 2013, most came from other member states of the European Union. As for the number of German citizens emigrating, most remained in the EU, but at least six thousand chose to move to the United States. Illegal immigration from Germany to the United States is negligible.
Germany boasts the largest economy in Europe, and has had a strong history of economic development. Its GDP (gross domestic product), estimated at over $3.2 trillion (USD), is the fifth highest in the world. Women in Germany have also enjoyed developments in equality and women’s rights movements. The German women’s rights movement paralleled the plight of America’s women in some ways. Both achieved the right to vote in the early 20th century, and both were bolstered by wartime and postwar responsibilities. Today, German women hold a societal standing alongside men, with a female chancellor acting as further evidence. The success of both Germany’s economy and its movements for equality have posed challenges for sustaining its population and economic well-being. Germany’s total fertility rate sits at 1.4 births per woman, below the replacement level, and the crude birth rate is at 8 per 1,000 population, below the mortality rate. The increased ability to get an education and find their own careers has made marriage and child-rearing less of a priority for many women. As such, the average age of first birth for women is relatively old, at approximately thirty. The increased prevalence of contraception and family planning services plays a similar role in decreasing fertility: approximately 66.2% of German couples practice some form of contraception. The common line of thinking among many Germans considering families is that juggling work and children leads to neglect in one or the other. Thus, households remain small. In an attempt to combat the negative fertility trend, the German government has implemented a variety of reforms and laws. These include child care subsidies and extended maternity and paternity leave to allow parents to care for their children without sacrificing careers.
With the current patterns of population decline, Germany is facing a host of potential problems, economic and otherwise. Due to the ageing population, a great strain is placed on Germany’s extensive social welfare infrastructure. The burden of paying for pensions and health care lies on the younger generations. Because there are fewer young people, each has a larger debt to pay, lowering their own quality of life. This is somewhat of a positive feedback loop: increased economic strain would lead to even less time for raising families. With a decline in the workforce size, however, there would also be a labor shortage as there are fewer young people to replace the retiring generations. Although this may weaken the economy as a whole, wages could be raised and immigration rates could climb in order to satisfy the demand for labor.
With regards to food supply, Germany faces no threat of food unsustainability in the near future, especially if the population continues to decline. Its agricultural sector makes up less than one percent of its GDP, but is extremely productive, able to support at least eighty percent of the country’s nutritional demands. Furthermore, in 2011, Germany had a net export of agricultural products of about five billion USD. At the moment, food supply is not a concern.
Environmentally, a decline in population does not harm the environment directly. In fact, a reduced population leads to reduced resource use. However, societies facing a pressure to bolster their economy may forgo investing in sustainability when there exists the more pressing issue of keeping their industries afloat. Overall, environmental efforts may be hampered in the long-term.
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