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Mother and child in Germany. (PHOTO: IRINA SCHMIDT/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Rabenmutter: Germany Waging the War for Talent Without Women

• August 14, 2013 • 3:08 PM

Mother and child in Germany. (PHOTO: IRINA SCHMIDT/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Germany is facing a serious talent shortage, but the country continues to stigmatize working mothers, who are already underpaid and underemployed.

Germany is dying. Low fertility rates and xenophobia exacerbate a talent shortage. Towns throughout the country shrink toward oblivion. Yet Germany refuses to embrace the obvious solution, putting women to work:

Germany, however, an island of prosperity, is spending heavily to find ways out of the doom-and-gloom predictions, and it would seem ideally placed to show the Continent the way. So far, though, even while spending $265 billion a year on family subsidies, Germany has proved only how hard it can be. That is in part because the solution lies in remaking values, customs and attitudes in a country that has a troubled history with accepting immigrants and where working women with children are still tagged with the label “raven mothers,” implying neglectfulness.

If Germany is to avoid a major labor shortage, experts say, it will have to find ways to keep older workers in their jobs, after decades of pushing them toward early retirement, and it will have to attract immigrants and make them feel welcome enough to make a life here. It will also need to get more women into the work force while at the same time encouraging them to have more children, a difficult change for a country that has long glorified stay-at-home mothers. …

… Melanie Vogel, 39, of Bonn, found that trying to blend work and motherhood was so lonely, dispiriting and expensive that she decided to have one child. None of her friends worked full time, her mother-in-law made clear she disapproved, and so did clients in the job fair company she runs with her husband.

“Before my son was born, I was Melanie, a working businesswoman,” Mrs. Vogel said. “But after my son was born, to a lot of people, I was just a mother.”

Many working mothers find themselves quickly pushed into poorly paid “mini” jobs — perhaps 17 hours a week for about $600 a month. More than four million working women in Germany, about a quarter of the female work force, hold such jobs.

Employees with limited geographic mobility, such as the stigmatized raven mothers (Rabenmutter), comprise a captive labor market. Working moms are not only underpaid, but underemployed. Out of cultural tradition, Germany is wasting talent.

Pittsburgh used to suffer from the same problem. Men worked in the mills. Women raised the children. Local leadership knew this division of labor was unsustainable:

For Pittsburgh, no matter what you read about transformation this, or transformation that, make no doubt that the most meaningful story of transformation in the Pittsburgh economy has been in the story of female labor force participation catching up with the nation’s. The impact of that is bigger than most everything else we talk about when it comes to economic change in Pittsburgh.

I will throw out there again the quote from 1947 that presages it all. Here is the advice that was ignored until it was too late:

(Pittsburgh) will, however, slowly decline unless new industries employing women and those engaged in the production of consumer goods are attracted to the area.

Which is from a report written by a place called the Econometric Institute based in News York City and titled: “Long Range Outlook for the Pittsburgh Industrial Area”, stamped February 12, 1947 and was for the Allegheny Conference and the Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce.

Much has been made of Pittsburgh’s good fortune relative to that of Detroit’s. The region didn’t magically get its act together in the wake of the 1980s exodus. The vision of a postindustrial Pittsburgh was written in the shadow of World War II. That’s when the fate of Pittsburgh diverged from Detroit. Postwar, Detroit doubled down on manufacturing.

However, perhaps out of sheer desperation, Pittsburgh did open the doors to women in the workforce after the recessions of the early 1980s. As regional economist Chris Briem says, “it was too late.”

But enter the workforce they did, causing a curious paradox. As the population declined, the number of people employed or looking for jobs grew:

From 1980-2000, the 7-county MSA lost about 200,000 people. Yet, by my reckoning, the labor force is bigger in 2000 than it was in 1980. Whatever the exact numbers, Pittsburgh’s population shrank while the labor force is at least the same as it was just before the devastating recession.

Or, look at the 70s. Again, the population declined over that decade. Yet the labor force dramatically grew. Even the powerful correction failed to reduce the number of employment seekers to 1970 levels, not even close. Unless my eyes deceive me, the Pittsburgh MSA has gained about 200,000 workers in 40 years. That’s impressive for a dying city.

Like for Germany today, the story was population decline. Meanwhile, the labor force grew dramatically. Germany could continue to shrink and address the talent shortages without taking on more immigrants. Lean in, raven mothers. Save the fatherland.

Jim Russell
Jim Russell is a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development.

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