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Population Decline and the Future of Germany (December 7, 2005)

Federal President Horst Köhler talks about recent demographic prognoses and their long-term impact on Germany. He asks people to take a more active role in shaping the country’s future and to develop forward-looking solutions.

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Speech by Federal President Horst Köhler at the Conference on Demographic Change


I would like to extend a warm welcome to you! I am looking forward to the discussion and our collaboration.

The subject of our conference is basically the future. We all know that the future is by definition open. That’s what makes our subject so interesting. People are always predicting the future, and the predictions are always being revised. But it is also true that we can influence the future, for the better or the worse. And something else is also true: We have influenced the future so often without even being aware of it. The future is to a large degree the result of what we did or didn’t do in the past – as individuals and as a society in general.

We Germans have given considerable shape to the future of our country by having, raising, and educating far fewer children in the past thirty years than in the previous decades. This has even changed our present – fewer and fewer children are running around on playgrounds, and [the sound of] children’s laughter is ever rarer in pedestrian shopping zones. But that’s just the beginning. If these developments continue, they will have a much stronger impact on the future of our country, since fewer and fewer children also means fewer and fewer future parents.


In statistical terms, since the early 1970s, every generation of Germans has been approximately one-third smaller than its parents’ generation. At the same time, we are living longer and longer. On average, we will live four years longer than our parents, and our children – if we have any – will live four years longer than us. Life expectancy today is about thirty years longer than it was a century ago.

If the birthrate remains constant and life expectancy continues to increase at its present rate, and if immigration [to Germany] were to stop today, then, by the end of this century, there wouldn’t even be half as many people in Germany as there are today. The population, however, will probably grow a bit, at least if more people immigrate than emigrate, as is presently the case. Yet even if the immigration rate remains constant, it will not stop the population decline, but at most slow it down.

However precise these prognoses may be, one trend is definite: Whereas the population in some parts of Africa and the Arab world might double in the next fifty years, the population in Germany will shrink and get older.

The consequences of this change will not affect all regions at the same time or with the same force. Eastern German cities such as Halle and Chemnitz, but also western German cities such as Bremerhaven and Gelsenkirchen, are already losing more and more residents. Daycare centers and schools, public libraries and theaters are closing, office buildings and stores are vacant, bus lines are being discontinued, businesses can no longer find enough qualified staff. At the same time, in some of Germany’s major cities the number of first and second generation immigrants is increasing. In a few years, this segment of the population will already account for fifty percent of the under-40 age group.

In the future, whoever has a job will have to help to support more and more elderly people. Presently, 100 working-age people pay the costs of 44 retirees, but as early as 2050 these same 100 people will be expected to support a good 80 retirees. By then, the number of very old people will have increased threefold. Moreover, the children that people didn’t have in the past won’t be available as customers and consumers. They don’t drive cars, don’t need apartments, don’t go on vacation or out to eat.

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