Germany twenty years later

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In 1989 Germany was divided into two parts of different sizes: 64 million people lived in the western side and 16 million in the eastern side. A few years before the fall of the Berlin wall, comparison of the demographic trends between the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) already revealed interesting disparities. The differences between their political regimes and their economic systems had visible effects on their demography. Can we argue that the fall of the wall initiated a process of demographic convergence?

Before verifying this hypothesis, let’s look at the past fertility and mortality rates.

To the East, a fertility policy that collapsed along with the wall

From 1957 to 1970 the fertility rates between East and West Germany were practically identical (figure 1).

They peaked at around 2.5 children per woman in 1964 before plummeting until the 1970s. The German baby-boom was more short lived and occurred later than in France.

From 1975 onwards, the fertility rates diverged. East Germany implemented pro-natalist policies that visibly affected fertility, mostly due to earlier fertility timing. Meanwhile, West Germany was entering its "second demographic transition": later unions and births, and below-replacement fertility. The demographic regime of the former FRG persists to this day.

After the fall of the wall, while the two fertility rates had previously been moving closer together, the fertility rate in eastern Germany dropped suddenly and reached a historic low of 0.8 children per woman in 1994. This is usually attributed to the dismantling of family benefits and childcare provision in a context of political and economic instability.

The two fertility rates started converging again after 1995. There is now no difference between the new and the old federal states of Germany (Länder). This can be partly explained by the alignment of fertility profiles by age (figure 2) between women from eastern and western Germany . Age at childbearing was particularly low in East Germany before the fall of the wall, but late childbearing is now the norm across the whole of Germany.


Similar mortality trends

Mortality trends are much less divergent. In the early 1950s, life expectancies at birth and at age 60 in the two Germanies were very similar, for both men and women. Following the fall of the Berlin wall, life expectancy at birth was higher in the west than in the east, with a difference of 2.5 years for men and 2.6 years for women. In 2006-2008, the gap had narrowed to just 1.3 years for men and 0.3 years for women (table 1). The gender gap in life expectancy - 6.3 years in FRG and 6.2 in GDR in 1989 - is a little smaller in the old Länder than in the new (5.1 years and 6.1 years, respectively, in 2006-2008).

Low immigration to the east

The fall of the wall instigated new migration flows from the east to the west which can be attributed to disparities in living standards and wages. Unemployment levels in the east are another explanatory factor. There are also some movements from west to east, linked to the economic restructuring of the former GDR and to new opportunities, notably for highly qualified workers, although net flows are away from the new Länder and towards the old. In 2008, 136,500 people left the new Länder for the old while only 85,000 moved east.

Levels of international migration towards FRG were much higher than to the GDR, where the percentage of foreigners remained low (mostly originating from socialist countries such as Vietnam, Cuba etc.). Today, immigrants mainly come from Poland, Romania, Turkey, Hungary, and Bulgaria. The 3 main destinations are North Rhine-Westphalia, Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria, three Länder of the former FRG which are today by far the most populated in Germany. If we look at the number of new immigrants in relation to population size in destination regions - a relative measure of immigration - Hamburg and Berlin appear to be the most attractive to immigrants.

An overall population decline

Considering Germany as a whole, the birth rate has decreased by half in 50 years, falling from 16.3 per 1,000 in 1950 to 8.2 in 2006. Apart from a few fluctuations, the mortality rate in 2006 was very close to that of 1950 (10 per 1,000 versus 10.9). While mortality has remained practically the same over the last 50 years, births have fallen sharply, resulting in a progressive shift in population growth from a moderate annual increase of 0.5%, to a decline of 0.2% per year.

With respect to this overall situation, what is the position of the old and new Länder?

Everywhere the population is declining, but the situation varies from one Länder to another and there is no clear-cut divide between those of former FRG and those of the former GDR. The highest absolute rate of population decline is in Saxony-Anhalt (-0.5%) in the east of the country, followed by the Saarland (-0.48%) in the west, and then Thuringia (-0.4%) in the east. The data from 2008 and 2009 show a slightly faster decline in the new Länder (excluding East Berlin) than in the old ones (excluding West Berlin): -0.9% versus -0.2%. In Berlin, population growth between 2008 and 2009 was positive but weak (a rate of 0.3%) but this city, now reinstated as Germany’s capital, is a very particular case.


The fall of the demographic wall

Although just one aspect among many, demographic trends in Germany suggest that the country is now fully reunified. There is no longer a demographic wall between East and West Germany, and the demographic projections for 2050 do not distinguish the two sides. They present three fertility scenarios (1.2 children per woman, 1.4 or 1.6) all leading to a sharp drop in the German population. Under the medium scenario, the German population in 2050 will be close to what it was in 1950, when the combined population of FRG and GDR was 69 million, versus 82 million today.

Contact: Jacques Véron and François Héran

Online: November 2009