An isle of youth in graying Germany?

While covering Germany's elections, the Monitor's Europe bureau chief finds a town that is bucking the national trend of an aging population.

Sara Miller Llana/Staff
A street in Greifswald, Germany, on Friday.

Germany's economy might be the star of Europe, but it lags in at least one important area: demography.

It's a rapidly aging society – one of Germany's deep, long-term concerns, and something that other Europeans love to point out. French political observers, in particular, always tell me that, while their economy might be weaker, their women are having far more babies, which will make a big difference in the decades to come.

I am in Stralsund, Germany, right now, which is a city on the Baltic Sea in the district that German Chancellor Angela Merkel represents. And locals always cite as one of their biggest worries that, in fact, young people leave in droves. Unemployment is high. Wages are low. There is little industry.

(Read more about Ms. Merkel in this week's cover story, which explains why none of these issues ever seem to impact her popularity.) 

So it was with no small degree of surprise that I stumbled upon a study showing that the next major town over in the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Greifswald, is “Germany's youngest.

It's not that the women of this small city in northeastern Germany are bucking fertility trends. With the Ernst Moritz Arndt University, founded in 1456 and one of the oldest universities in Central Europe, Greifswald is essentially a giant college town. Christophe Decker and Claudia Urbainsky, ages 25 and 23 respectively, came here from other places in Germany to study medicine and molecular biology respectively.

“There are young people all around,” says Mr. Decker, standing outside on the cafe- and bookstore-lined main drag in the old town. “It is dominated by students.”

As the 2008 study points out, Greifswald has the largest proportion of households (25 percent) whose head is 29 years or younger. That is in no small part because of a student population of 13,000 in a town that has about 60,000 in total.

But walking around, I noticed strollers, bikes with children's seats attached, and little toddlers and elementary school students toting balloons everywhere I looked.

I decided to approach one young parent: Franziska Mockler, who was biking her 2- and 4-year-olds along the Ryck River. She is completing her degree in medicine and her husband is working as a doctor in the local hospital. She says the town recently opened new preschools to accommodate the glut of kids. “They are everywhere,” she says.

It's something the mayor, as any mayor would, has called out as a selling point. In a recent brochure, he doesn't call Greifswald Germany's youngest city, but “with an average age of 42.3 years, Greifswald is one of the youngest towns in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania,” he writes. That 42.3 puts Greifswald below the national average, which the Central Intelligence Agency Factbook tallied at 45.7 in 2010. And when compared to the US average of 37.2, the German age problem becomes apparent.

Perhaps more important than Greifswald's relative youth – and certainly differentiating it from the rest of Germany – its birth rates are rising. “In Greifswald, rising birth rates and the influx of new inhabitants have compensated for the ageing [sic] of the population, which is a problem faced by other regions in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. In 2010, 543 new Greifswalders were born – more than we have seen since 1990.”

Ms. Mockler says she doesn't necessarily plan on staying in Greifswald for her entire life, as the mayor might wish, as the city seeks to draw more research and technology companies to the area and keep it growing. But she says that with the river, the open spaces, the short distances that make the bike the best way to get around, it is an ideal spot to raise young children.

“It's a very nice place for kids,” she says, just as a gaggle of elementary school students burst past us.

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