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With population shrinking, Germany worries for future

At issue, attitudes on immigration, working mothers

Germany has revised its population down by 1.5 million to 80.2 million. Projections for the future are worse.

JoHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images

Germany has revised its population down by 1.5 million to 80.2 million. Projections for the future are worse.

SONNEBERG, Germany — At first glance, this town in central Germany, with rows of large houses built when it was a thriving center of toy manufacturing, looks tidy and prosperous. But Heiko Voigt, the deputy mayor here, can point out dozens of vacant homes that he doubts will ever be sold.

The reality is that the German population is shrinking and towns like this one are working hard to hide the emptiness. Voigt has already supervised the demolition of 60 houses and 12 apartment blocks, strategically injecting grassy patches into once-dense complexes.

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“We are trying to keep the town looking good,” he said.

There is perhaps nowhere better than the German countryside to see the dawning impact of Europe’s plunge in fertility rates over the decades, a problem that has frightening implications for the economy and the psyche of the Continent. In some areas, there are now abundant overgrown yards, boarded-up windows and concerns about sewage systems too empty to work properly. The workforce is rapidly graying, and assembly lines are being redesigned to minimize bending and lifting.

In its most recent census, Germany discovered it had lost 1.5 million inhabitants. By 2060, specialists say, the country could shrink by an additional 19 percent, to about 66 million.

Demographers say a similar future awaits other European countries, and the issue grows more pressing every day as Europe’s seemingly endless economic troubles accelerate the decline. But bogged down with failed banks and dwindling budgets, few are in any position to do anything about it.

Germany, however, an island of prosperity, is spending heavily to find ways out of the doom-and-gloom predictions, and it would seem ideally placed to show the Continent the way. So far, though, even while spending $265 billion a year on family subsidies, Germany has proved only how hard it can be. That is in part because the solution lies in remaking values, customs, and attitudes in a country that has a troubled history with accepting immigrants and where working women with children are still tagged with the label “raven mothers,” implying neglectfulness.

If Germany is to avoid a major labor shortage, specialists say, it will have to find ways to keep older workers in their jobs, after decades of pushing them toward early retirement, and it will have to attract immigrants and make them feel welcome enough to make a life here. It will also need to get more women into the workforce while at the same time encouraging them to have more children, a difficult change for a country that has long glorified stay-at-home mothers.

With high unemployment rates across most of Southern and Eastern Europe, Germany is in a good position to increase its labor pool by plucking the best and the brightest from its neighbors, and it has begun to do so.

Yet, with hundreds of thousands of skilled jobs unfilled, some executives believe Germany should change its immigration laws and accept foreign credentials to compete for workers with other aging countries.

Germany’s experience with integrating foreign workers, particularly the country’s large Turkish minority, has proved difficult, and many government officials and business leaders are examining Germany’s culture.

But whether they will succeed is unclear. A recent study found that more than half the Greeks and Spaniards who came to Germany left within a year. “I think the answer is that we need to look outside Europe,” Klingholz said.

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