Sci. Aging Knowl. Environ., 15 September 2004
Vol. 2004, Issue 37, p. pe35
[DOI: 10.1126/sageke.2004.37.pe35]


A Century of Population Aging in Germany

Elke Hoffmann, and Sonja Menning

The authors are at the German Centre of Gerontology, Manfred-von-Richthofen-Strasse 2, 12101 Berlin, Germany. E-mail: hoffmann{at} (E.H.)

Key Words: birth rate • demographics • Germany • life expectancy • old-age dependency ratios • population

The current demographic trend in the developed world toward a more elderly population is a well-known and widely discussed phenomenon, not only among the relevant experts but also in the media and in public debate. Here we aim to describe the probable causes and consequences of this trend by investigating the underlying demographic processes taking place in Germany from the middle of the 20th century onward. We also discuss developments that the population of Germany is likely to undergo in the next 50 years. Selected aspects of these demographic phenomena are considered in a broader European Community context [for further information on European population trends see the Eurostat (European statistics office) Web site]. The process of population "aging" is characterized by a shift in age structures within the population, so that the proportion of young individuals declines relative to that of old individuals. This demographic aging process is a result of "aging from below" (lower birth rates and increasing childlessness) combined with "aging from above" (a progressive increase in the overall life expectancy of all age groups). Migration trends are a third, often less predictable, factor influencing population development.

Populations affected by this aging phenomenon are those in which the long-term birth rate, and thus the net rate of reproduction, is below the level necessary to replace the parental generation. At the beginning of the 21st century, this is the case for European countries, for the more developed industrial nations of Asia and America, for China with its highly restrictive family policy, and for states that were part of the former Soviet Union. But a long-term trend toward reduced fertility can also be observed in some developing countries. In countries such as Cuba, Thailand, Singapore, and South Korea, the birth rate has already fallen below the level necessary to sustain the present population. Other countries, including Egypt, Algeria, South Africa, Bangladesh, Tunisia, India, and Brazil, have witnessed a reduction in fertility levels of over 50% over the past 50 years and have a current birth rate of 2 to 3 children per female. Nonetheless, in the poorest countries in the world, the fertility level is as high as ever. This is especially true of the African countries south of the Sahara. In 70% of all African countries, a woman gives birth to more than four children on average, with regional variations falling in the range of two to eight children per mother (for more information see the Federal Institute for Population Research at the German Federal Statistical Office and the German Foundation for World Population).

In Germany, the current birth rate is relatively stable, after a significant decline in the former East Germany at the beginning of the 1990s. However, the rate has stabilized at the very low level of about 130 births per 100 women, which is well below the 210 births per 100 women needed to replace the parental generation. Among the large European countries, Germany, together with Greece, Spain, Italy, and the Eastern European countries joining the European Union (EU), exhibits the most striking decline in birth rate over the past 40 years (Fig. 1). At the same time, advances in public health and medicine, combined with the positive effects of a prosperous society, have led to a decline in mortality and an increase in life expectancy over the past century. In Germany, since the start of the 20th century, life expectancy for 65-year-old men has risen by 5.5 years to average 15.9 further years of life (data from 2000/2002) and that of 65-year-old women by 8.5 years to permit 19.6 further years of life. 80-year-old men can now expect an additional 2.7 years of life, which at this age corresponds to an increase in life expectancy of 61% since the beginning of the 20th century. Women of the same age can expect to live an additional 3.9 years on average (an increase of 83%). Similar changes have been seen in the EU as a whole; trends for the populations of individual EU member states (since 1980) are shown in Fig. 2.

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Fig. 1. Declining birth rates in Europe, 1960–2002. For individual EU member states, bars show the percentage fall in total fertility rate (the average number of children born alive to a woman during her lifetime) over the past 40 years. Data are from Eurostat (the Statistical Office of the European Communities).


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Fig. 2. Gains in life expectancy in Europe since 1980. For each individual country, the figure shows the number of additional years that a 65-year-old is expected to live today, relative to a person who was 65 in 1980. Data are from Eurostat.

Population aging is not only influenced by present and future demographic processes, it is to a large extent already determined by current population structures. The size of future generations of older people, for instance, can be estimated with some accuracy, because these people are now already middle-aged, and so their remaining life span can be reliably predicted. Moreover, the number of newborn children in the future is determined to a large extent by the number of young men and women living today; that is, by the demographic potential of future parents.

Migration trends are the third factor influencing population development. Migration modulates the relatively stable factors of birth rate and life expectancy, extending beyond the borders of the individual countries involved. In the case of Germany, short-term fluctuations in migration levels are possible, and these could influence the composition of some age groups. These processes are difficult to predict, because they are often initiated by political decisions and influenced by prevailing international factors. However, realistic projected levels of immigration are unlikely to result in a significant effect on the age structure of the population of Germany as a whole.

Demographic Time Series in Germany, 1952 to 2050

Overall population size

The population of Germany has shown two periods of dynamic growth: the period from 1952 to the mid-1970s (often described as the "baby boom") and the period from the 1990s up to the turn of the century. Whereas the first growth phase was based on natural population growth through an increased birth rate, the second phase was caused by net immigration. In the period from 1952 to 2002, the overall population rose by 17.5% from 70.2 to 82.5 million people. The relative surplus of women (which had been caused mainly by the two world wars) dropped from 1164 women per 1000 men to 1046. According to the "moderate" current population projection of the German Federal Statistical Office (see The 10th Coordinated Population Project until 2050), the population of Germany will increase slightly over the next few years. This projection is based on the following assumptions: (i) that the frequency of births remains at an average of 1.4 children per female, (ii) that life expectancy at birth increases to 81.1 years for young males and to 86.6 years for young females (by the year 2050), and (iii) that the migration level is positive and amounts to some 200 thousand immigrants annually. On this basis, the population will remain at around 83.1 million people until 2010, and will then decrease to around 75.1 million by 2050. This scenario predicts a population decrease of 8 million people between 2010 and 2050, a number that corresponds roughly to the entire present population of the German state of Lower Saxony. The current relative surplus of females will stabilize at around 1040 to 1050 women per 1000 men.

Age distribution of the population

With a declining overall population, the demographic shift toward a more elderly Germany is a key factor in planning the economic, social, and cultural future of the country. This is particularly true of the relationship between the youngest and oldest generations, and of the relationship of these two groups of dependents to the population of working-age people. As shown in Fig. 3, the population of Germany has been aging since the start of the reference period in the early 1950s. The youngest and oldest population groups form a virtual mirror image: As the proportion of children and juveniles continuously declines, the proportion of elderly people increases. Over the next 5 years, the proportion of the population that is elderly will first equal and then exceed the proportion that is young. The number of individuals aged under 20 in the total population dropped by almost 10% between 1952 and 2002, and will decrease by a further 5% or so by 2050. Only 16% of those living in Germany will then be under 20 years of age, whereas 30% were under 20 in 1952. The number of people over 65 rose by more than 7% from 1952 to 2002. Up to 2050, a greater increase of around 12% can be expected for this group. In 1952, just 10% of the population was aged 65 and over, but by 2050 the proportion will be 30%. The proportion of the population aged between 20 and 64 years will exhibit a quite different picture, falling from nearly 60% of the total population today to around 53% from 2020 onward.

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Fig. 3. Population of Germany by age group, 1952–2050. The colored lines show the number of people in a given age group as a proportion of the total population. The youngest and oldest population groups form a virtual mirror image: As the proportion of children and juveniles continuously declines, the proportion of elderly people increases. The proportion of the population aged between 20 and 65 fluctuates less but is projected to fall in the long term. Data are from the German Federal Statistical Office and the Statistical Yearbooks of the GDR.

Age distribution of the working-age population

This moderate decline of the working-age population (defined here as the group aged from 20 to 64 years) encompasses certain dynamics with respect to the relative proportion of young, middle-aged, and elderly working-age people (Fig. 4). A structural shift is evident, which over the decades has led to an increased proportion of older people within the working-age population at the expense of younger workers. This process will continue in the future, indicating that the labor force will continue to age in Germany. At the beginning of the 1990s, 25% of the overall population was aged between 20 and 34 years, but in 2002 this group made up only 19% of the population. In 2050, only 17% of the population is expected to fall within this age group. The proportion of older working persons aged between 50 and 64 years increased from 15% of the overall population at the end of 1970s to 19% in 2002 and will reach 22% by 2050.

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Fig. 4. Working-Age population of Germany by age group, 1952–2050. Colored lines show the number of people in a given age group as a proportion of the total population. Because of the increasing proportion of older individuals of working age, a progressive aging of the German labor force is projected. Data are from the German Federal Statistical Office and the Statistical Yearbooks of the GDR.

Dependents and the working-age population

The "old-age dependency ratio" is defined as the number of older people (aged 65 and above) relative to the size of the working-age population. This statistical ratio is frequently used in the context of debates on how to maintain the German social security system. This ratio has increased continuously over the period from 1952, as shown in Fig. 5, with a small break in the 1980s (this break being due to the West German baby-boom generation born in the mid-1960s being absorbed into the 20- to 64-year-old age group). In 1952, there were 17 people aged over 65 years per 100 people of working age, increasing to 28 people over 65 years old in 2002. Population projections indicate that this aging process will accelerate over the next five decades, and the old-age dependency ratio will almost double. By 2050, 100 people of working age will have to provide for 55 people above retirement age. The difference between males and females is also striking: Dependency ratios for women have been higher than those for men since the 1960s, because women enjoy a life expectancy that is 5 to 6 years longer than that of men.

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Fig. 5. Old-age dependency ratio for Germany, 1952–2050. This ratio shows the number of individuals over 65 per 100 people of working age (20 to 64). Population projections indicate that the old-age dependency ratio will almost double over the next 50 years. Data are from the German Federal Statistical Office and the Statistical Yearbooks of the GDR.

Analyzing demographics using the Billeter index

The Billeter index (1) is another statistical measure that, in contrast to the old-age dependency ratio, includes the whole population rather than selected generations. This characteristic means that the Billeter index can react commensurately to changes in both mortality and fertility rates. This measure expresses the number of children (under 15 years of age) minus the number of people of grandparental age (aged 50 years and over) relative to the number of people of parental age (aged 15 to under 50 years). In other words, the Billeter index measures the population that is not yet reproductive, minus the population that is no longer reproductive, in relation to the population of fertile age. The lower this index, the older the population is in a demographic sense, negative values emerging when the number of older people exceeds that of the young. This index is regarded as one of the most useful measures for quantifying demographic aging.

Using the Billeter index, an acceleration in the aging process is seen in Germany's population from the early 1970s onward, and the acceleration is more pronounced for females, as expected from their longer life expectancy. Data for Germany are compared with those for other EU countries in Fig. 6. Germany, Italy, Greece, and Sweden possess the oldest populations and hence exhibit the most pronounced population aging. But in countries with relatively high birth rates by European standards, such as Ireland, France, and the Netherlands, the hitherto moderate aging process will accelerate over the next few decades. A tendency toward increased aging is also evident in the populations of Eastern European states joining the EU, as a result of the significant decline in the birth rate that has accompanied the economic and social transformations occurring in these countries since the beginning of the 1990s. Average life expectancies are currently much less in these countries than in Western Europe. Should life expectancies here approach Western European levels, this would be a further factor serving to increase the number of older people and their prevalence within the total population.

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Fig. 6. Population aging in selected European countries, 1956–2020. The rate of change in population "age" can conveniently be expressed using the Billeter index, which computes the number of people under 15 years of age minus the number of people over 50, per 100 people aged 15 to 49. The lower the Billeter index, the older the population is in a demographic sense, negative values emerging when the number of older people exceeds that of the young. In the Eastern European countries, a faster population aging process can be observed since the beginning of the 1990s. Data are from Eurostat.


The dynamics of human aging at the population level have long been regarded as a key issue of our times, because of their pervasive implications. This phenomenon is not without positive aspects, of course, given the hope that increasing life expectancy will endow many individuals with a healthy and fulfilling old age. For a debate on the aging process at the individual human level, see Olshansky Perspective and de Grey Viewpoint.

The processes of population development in Germany described here, involving population aging and decline, are ongoing, predictable, and by and large irreversible. The main underlying causes are continuing low fertility and increased life expectancy, which are particularly evident for the older age groups. These demographic factors promise to be one of the defining factors shaping the political and economic development of Germany and are likely to enforce a transformation of the economic and social fabric of the country. Changes in the German social security systems (involving pensions and the health system) are subject to much current debate, and it is easy to imagine the new demands that will be placed on the education system and the world of employment. If these challenges are successfully met, and if the potential of the aging populace is better utilized than hitherto, demographic change can lend new and important impetus to social development in Germany.

September 15, 2004
  1. E. P. Billeter, Eine Masszahl zur Beurteilung der Altersverteilung einer Bevolkerung [Schweizerische Zeitschrift für Volkswirtschaft und Statistik (Swiss Society of Economics and Statistics), Zurich, 1954], pp. 496–505.
  2. The authors thank E. Wollscheid-Lengeling for many valuable comments on a preliminary version of this paper.
Citation: E. Hoffmann, S. Menning, A Century of Population Aging in Germany. Sci. Aging Knowl. Environ. 2004 (37), pe35 (2004).

Science of Aging Knowledge Environment. ISSN 1539-6150