Population trends in Germany

Germany's population is aging rapidly; birth rates are falling, even though immigration is rising. What does the demographic future look like?
A homemade flag combining elements from the Turkish and German flags at a match between the two .../ Credits: Reuter

Fertility and Aging

Germany's birth rate began a steep decline in the early 1970s, around the time birth control pills hit the market. For the last 40 years, the number of births across Germany has been far below what is needed to sustain its population. Germany's fertility rate of 1.34 children per woman is now the lowest in Western Europe, and its 8.4 annual births per 1,000 people is one of the lowest in the world together with Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The latter ratio is important because it defines the future mix of young people with old. In Germany, there are now around 34 elderly (65 and older) people for every 100 people in the workforce. Because of low birth rates and other trends, this ‘old age dependency ratio’ could double by 2060. That means that for every 100 people of working age, there could be 68 people in retirement. This kind of population development would make today's pension and social security system financially unsustainable.

Another factor affecting population aging is increasing life expectancy. Over the last century, life expectancy in Germany has increased by over 30 years. If current trends continue, a baby boy born in 2050 could expect to live to be 83, a baby girl to be 88. This is good news because it reflects Germans' health and high living standards. Rising life expectancy, however, also presents the challenge of more elderly people collecting pensions longer into old age.


Large-scale immigration into Germany began in the 1950s. To man the factories and plants of the postwar economic miracle in West Germany, companies recruited hundreds of thousands of industrial workers, mostly from Turkey, Italy, Yugoslavia, and Greece. Many of these Gastarbeiter (’guest workers’) stayed and started families, even after the miracle and the recruitment drive ended in the early 1970s.

Far fewer foreigners came to Communist East Germany, though the government recruited many contract laborers from other socialist countries, including Vietnam, Mozambique, and Cuba. Most of these workers returned to their home countries, but around 90,000 of them—including 60,000 from Vietnam—were still in the country when the Berlin Wall came down in 1990.

Today, roughly seven million foreigners live in Germany, including 1.6 million Turks, 520,000 Italians, 468,000 Poles, and 283,000 Greeks. The next five biggest immigrant groups are Croatians, Serbs, Russians, Austrians, and Romanians which together account for about a million people.

The number of annual immigrant arrivals has steadily declined since German reunification in 1991, when around 1.2 million people came to Germany. Just over half that number—661,000 people—came in 2006. Recently, however, immigration levels seems to have bounced back. 2011 saw the highest number of immigrants since 1996, 958,000 people.

Once in Germany, many immigrants and their descendants have had difficulties integrating into German culture and society. Foreigners are twice as likely as Germans to be unemployed and dependent on social welfare, according to the Berlin Institute for Population and Development.

Meanwhile, the children of immigrants are less than half as likely to attend Gymnasium, the secondary school that leads to university.

More encouragingly, in its 2012 issue of the report on the situation of foreigners in Germany the government perceived a tentative upward trend in terms of education, especially among foreign students that aimed at high school graduation or an technical diploma.

From 2005 to 2010 their number increased by 36 percent. But still this trend can’t hide the fact that in 2010 more than one third of foreigners between 25 and 35 years of age didn’t have any professional qualifications or a university degree. This is three times as much as compared with their German peer group.

Emigration and Domestic Migration

Migration in Germany is not a one-way street. Around 141,000 Germans moved abroad in 2010. These were mostly job-seeking Germans and their families who settled elsewhere in Europe. Most of the highly-qualified workers that leave the country complain about high taxes and too much bureaucracy.

Even if it slowed down East-to-West domestic migration continues in Germany, worsening depopulation in the six eastern states. Two-thirds of the 1.6 million people that have left eastern Germany since unification are young, educated women. Many head west and south to more prosperous German cities like Frankfurt, Munich, and Stuttgart. There are now as few as 76 women to every 100 men in some parts of eastern Germany.

Demographic experts say the absence of young women not only leads to fewer babies, but also to frustration and right-wing extremism among the young, uneducated men that remain in economically depressed areas.

However, there are signs that indicate a turning of this tide. According to a study from the Leibniz Institute for Regional Geography, about 74 percent of the migrants between 25 and 45 years of age who are well educated are considering returning to the eastern states. In 2010, more than 40,000 East Germans moved back to their old home, meaning that every other person who moved East was a returnee. And in 2011, Saxony was the first Eastern state that showed a positive migration record. About 3,600 people more returned than left the state.

Write a Comment

Comments (1)

Franz: 24.04.2014, 20:30

Time for Germany to take a good look at itself in the mirror and determine what it wants to see..................

Search for related articles