Germany's Population in Crisis

Germany, the biggest country in the European Union with a population of 82.4 million, will be overtaken by Great Britain and France in 50 years.

A new study released by the European Commission demographic agency Eurostat predicts that Germany's population will go down by 14 percent in the year 2060, making it only the third-biggest country in Europe.

According to the study revealed in Luxemburg yesterday, Great Britain will become No. 1 in Europe with a projected 77 million people. Currently some 61 million people live in Great Britain.

No. 2 would be France with approximately 72 million, a growth of 16 percent from its current 62 million, thanks to policies promoting child bearing and good support for working women.

The survey also predicts that one of the most challenging problems in Europe is the aging population. The average age of Europeans now is just over 40; it will be 48 by the year 2060.

There will be some zigzagging in years to come with swells and drops. Europe's population now stands at 495 million and is projected to rise to more than 520 million by 2035, before falling to 505 million by 2060.

Those figures are not necessarily shocking Germans, where low birth rates and the declining population have been dominating headlines for many years.

Last year the birth rate here plummeted to the lowest level since 1945: Only 680,000 babies were born. To put that in perspective, even during the last year of World War II, some 700,000 births were registered.

"Deaths have outnumbered births in Germany since 1972, and the gap between births and deaths is continuously becoming bigger," explains Steffen Kröhnert, a social scientist at Berlin's Institute for Population and Development.

"The crude birth rate -- defined as births per thousand inhabitants -- has declined in Germany each year. Even after factoring in immigration, the German population is experiencing a negative growth," he says.

The figures have been dropping for the last 30 years, and politicians across the board have largely been ignoring the fact that a demographic revolution is under way.

The population is both shrinking and aging at the same time, creating a demographic crunch that will cause massive problems in the future, such as how to pay for health care and social security, or when those in work cannot support the pension needs of the retired.

Fact is, Germans are now living longer and having fewer babies.

There are many reasons for the declining birth rate in Germany, from the country's high jobless rates and bleak employment prospects to career pressures to lack of day care to lifestyle choices, to name a few.

Politicians, who realize there's no more time to look away, are now toddling toward shifting the trend. Recently, the German government proudly announced that the average birth rate per woman is now 1.4 compared to 2.0 in France and about 1.91 in Great Britain.

"But that in itself does not really mean much," says Kröhnert. "We have a great challenge ahead of us. We need to conquer the lack of quantity with quality. In other words, we should look at our European neighbors and simply copy some of the good systems they offer."

He added, "Whether it is child-care systems that don't leave parents out of pocket, or affordable kindergartens and whole-day schooling that allow mothers and fathers to work without feeling guilty, or whether it is a good education system offering the same chance to every child, we need to do a lot more than is being done."

"Right now we have about 10 percent of our pupils leaving school without a proper education. We can't allow for that trend to continue, because those kids stand no chance to find a job. They'll be the unemployed in the future and add to the problems."

"We must also make Germany more attractive to potential immigrants. We need well-educated people to come here, to live and work here, and we need to fully integrate them and their kids."

After decades of ignoring falling birth rates, the German government has introduced some new legislature to sponsor family-building and measures to increase both the quality and the quantity of child-care systems making it more attractive for parents to have children.

Parents can now apply for Elterngeld (parents' money), which pays up to 67 percent of a parent's salary up to a maximum of 1,800 euros ($2,500) a month, if mom or dad decide to stay home to care for the newborn. Elterngeld is paid for 12 months if one parent stays home, for 14 months if both mother and father share the time off.

The government will also spend about $6 billion to build new day-care centers in order to add some 750,000 new day-care slots. The aim is to have a day-care slot for every third child under the age of 3.

All of which is seen by many as an eleventh hour effort to counteract the trend but whether Germany will be successful seems doubtful given the EU survey findings.