Press Release | March 31, 2003

Estimation of the Long-Term Fertility and Mortality Trends in Germany

Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research were invited to a hearing of the Commission for the long-term sustainability of financing for the social security systems (the so-called Rürup Commission) on February 20, 2003 in order to present their expert opinion regarding the validity of the basic demographic assumptions of the commission. Future developments concerning fertility and the expected rise in longevity are of great importance for the future financing of Germany's social insurance systems, since these two processes will determine the proportion of younger employed people to older retired people. The forecast period necessary for planning for retirement and health insurance stretches over several decades and thus presents quite a challenge. In addition, the question of bringing eastern and western German conditions into alignment is of importance for Germany's future.

Dr. Michaela Kreyenfeld represented the Institute's Division "Contemporary European Fertility and Family Dynamics". Based on the current population projection of the German Federal Statistical Office it is assumed that the total fertility rate of 1.4 for western Germany will remain stable at that value. For eastern Germany, where the fertility rate dropped drastically after the fall of the Berlin Wall to a low of 0.8, they are assuming that the rate will eventually rise to the western German level. Concerning estimates of future fertility trends, Kreyenfeld stressed the following points:

  • (Western) Germany is among those countries with the highest level of childlessness and the lowest (cohort) fertility rate in Europe. Present structural conditions regarding family and labor market policies speak against the likelihood of any change in this trend in the near future.
  • Even though the total period fertility rate seems to have remained at a stable level since the 1970s, there have been continuous changes regarding childbirth behavior. That is, there has been a rise in the age at first birth and a continuous increase in the percentage of women who remain childless.
  • Since the mid-1990s the East German period fertility rate has been approaching that of western Germany. Although it is plausible to assume the east-west discrepancy will disappear someday, in the mid-term, differences regarding childbirth behavior - particularly involving a second child - are more likely.
  • In addition, there is little reason to assume that employment behavior on the part of women and family structures (e.g., the proportion of married couples) in east and west will be brought into line with each other. These factors will certainly be highly relevant as regards planning for social security systems.

Dr. Jutta Gampe presented forecasts from the Institute's Division Aging, Mortality, and Longevity regarding life expectancy in Germany. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research are of the opinion that the following facts must be taken into consideration when estimating future life expectancy:

First, mortality trends in Germany need to be viewed in an international context. In the last three decades life expectancy in western Germany has developed more or less in sync with record life expectancy - which is the highest life expectancy in the world in any respective year - generally about three years below the current maximum. As Oeppen & Vaupel (2002) have shown, record life expectancy has increased linearly since 1840, with no signs of slowing down. If one considers the fact that new advances in medical technology, healthcare, lifestyle, etc. spread throughout the world rapidly, then it is likely that mortality trends in Germany will continue to keep in step with developments in the industrialized world.

Second, mortality developments in eastern Germany since 1990 make clear the extent to which direct improvements in mortality can be achieved by changes in lifestyle, healthcare and medical advancements. The rapid convergence of the death rates in the former East Germany towards the rates prevailing in the former West Germany shows how strongly longevity can be affected by external conditions. This makes it reasonable to assume that medical developments involving advancements in therapy - above all for chronic illnesses of old age - will have drastic, positive effects on remaining life expectancy in old age.

All in all, these reflections lead to two different potential scenarios for the remaining life expectancy at age 65. The more conservative estimate assumes a life expectancy at age 65 in the year 2030 of 22.9 years for women and 18.3 years for men. The second estimate, which is based on the prognosis the international trend, pojects even higher values for the year 2030, namely 25.1 years for females and 20.9 years for males, which would be an increase by more than five years compared to 1999. For this reason, the researchers from Rostock made the urgent recommendation to the Rürup Commission to be more optimistic in their assumptions about future trends in life expectancy, i.e. to base their calculations on higher estimates.

About the MPIDR

The Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) in Rostock investigates the structure and dynamics of populations. The Institute’s researchers explore issues of political relevance, such as demographic change, aging, fertility, and the redistribution of work over the life course, as well as digitization and the use of new data sources for the estimation of migration flows. The MPIDR is one of the largest demographic research bodies in Europe and is a worldwide leader in the study of populations. The Institute is part of the Max Planck Society, the internationally renowned German research organization.

Topic-related publication

Oeppen, J. and J.W. Vaupel: Broken limits to life expectancy. Science 296(2002)5570, 1029-1031. DOI:10.1126/science.1069675


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