The number of children born in Germany was the lowest last year since the end of World War II, the Federal Statistical Office reported on Tuesday. According to provisional figures, 680,000 babies were born last year, down from 1.36 million in 1964.
Germany now has the lowest birth rate in Europe with 8.5 births per 1,000 inhabitants, while in Britain it is 12, France 12.7, the Netherlands 11.9 and Ireland 15.2. The figures also show falling birth rates across former communist eastern Europe and the Baltic states, including Poland (9.3), Bulgaria (9) and Latvia (8.8).
Leading economists said unless Germans started breeding again Europe's biggest nation faced the prospect of reduced growth, economic decline and an elderly shrinking population.
"We are reaching a critical point," Michael Huther, the head of Cologne's economics institute, told Die Welt newspaper. "The number of births now determines what happens in the next decade-and-a-half to two decades. You can't revise it afterwards. The availability of human capital will get worse, and act as a brake on growth."
He told the Guardian newspaper: "The tradition in the 1950s, 60s and even the 80s in Germany was that a mother was only a mother and looked after the children."
Last year Germany's family minister, Ursula von der Leyen, tabled proposals to encourage reluctant couples to have children. They included tax breaks of 3,000 euros (US$3,592) a year for working couples, more nursery places, and a new state-funded welfare scheme that requires men to take two months off for families to get full funding. So far the changes appear to have had little impact and they have been criticized by some as a perk for the well-off.
The lowest birth rate is in former communist East Germany.