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Immediately after German unification, social policy aimed predominantly to take stock of East-West differences and to transfer the Federal Republic’s social institutions and legal regulations to the new federal states. Social issues affecting all of Germany were temporarily pushed into the background. Particularly contentious issues were left out of the negotiations between the governments of the GDR and the Federal Republic in the summer of 1990, so as not to threaten the timely conclusion of the Unification Treaty. These issues included the abortion law, which, for many, symbolized the achievements of women in the GDR system. Whereas women in the GDR had enjoyed access to legal first-trimester abortions since 1972, women in the Federal Republic were subject to a more restrictive abortion law. Abortion legislation passed in 1992 was declared unconstitutional by the Federal Constitutional Court; it was not until 1995 that a new law entered into force.

When compared with the “old” Federal Republic, the GDR exhibited certain deficiencies in its social development. In the first few years after unification, the term “catch-up modernization” [nachholende Modernisierung] was used to describe the process of remedying these deficiencies. When it came to structural gender equality, however, the GDR had a head start on the old Federal Republic. GDR women were privileged in social policy matters and were integrated into the working world. After unification, women in the new federal states were confronted with job loss and new family policies that were more strongly oriented toward traditional family values than those of the former GDR; many of these women saw themselves as the losers of the unification process. Nevertheless, progress toward gender equality in the new united Federal Republic continued to be made. In the end, some modernization trends affected East and West in equal measure. One of those trends was the move away from traditional married life. The reasons for this shift varied in East and West, however. Nonetheless, the traditional nuclear family (parents with children) continues to be the most common social unit.

In the decades of the expanding social welfare state (the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s), class differences faded into the background, and many Germans placed great value on social justice. In the wake of unification, social inequality reemerged as a subject of discussion. The issue’s renewed currency was attributable to an affluence and productivity gap between East and West that continues to this day. In view of prolonged structural unemployment and reforms to the social system (both tied to cutbacks in public benefit payments), social equality has become more important throughout all of Germany. Critical voices warn of a new social polarization in Germany and speak, in particular, of a growing gap between rich and poor, even if this gap still remains small in international comparison.

In the early 1990s, critics claimed that insufficient attention was being paid to the persistent decline in the birthrate and the aging of the population. This has since changed. Discussion focuses in particular on the effects of this demographic shift on Germany’s population, on the role of its senior citizens, on immigration policies, and above all on the financing of the social system.

Longer parental leaves, early retirement from gainful employment, and extended life expectancies are placing a greater burden on state pension funds and thus also on the generational contract, according to which the pensions of one generation are financed by the gainful employment of the next. Raising the retirement age to 67 is supposed to help plug the financial holes. While members of the older generation are primarily concerned with remaining in the workforce longer and guaranteeing their pensions, most members of the younger generation seem to face the new challenges pragmatically and optimistically. Greater performance is demanded of this new generation; there is no talk of rebellion anymore.

The protection of marriage and family has a special place in the value and legal system of the Federal Republic. In 2001, a life partnership law for same-sex couples was passed despite vehement resistance from the CDU/CSU. In 2006, there were roughly 20,000 registered same-sex partnerships in Germany. The traditional family, in which the father works and the mother devotes herself primarily to the family, is promoted through tax breaks and financial benefits (such as child allowances). But there are growing doubts about whether this kind of family policy is still appropriate. The birthrate is falling continuously, and life expectancy is rising; the plunge in births that occurred immediately after unification in the new federal states has since corrected itself a bit. Still, the continuing trend toward small families (in 2006, the average was 1.33 children per woman) contributed decisively to a gradual paradigm shift in family policies: the parental benefits policy approved by the Grand Coalition in September 2006 makes it equally possible for mothers and fathers to devote to themselves to child-rearing in the first few months of their children’s lives. But as long as working mothers are still criticized in some quarters and, above all, as long as there aren’t enough available spots in daycare centers – the goal is to create spots for 35 percent of all children under three by 2013 – the birthrate will not rise: in 2009 it sank to a new all-time low.

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