Amazing Media Study:
TV Creates Demographic Winter in Germany
An academic study in Germany was able to identify a relationship between TV consumption and fertility by exploiting a natural experiment that took place within Communist East Germany during the Cold War.
Contrary to East Germany’s values and family role models promoted by the communist regime, West Germany’s TV messages were not regulated by the government and portrayed lifestyles where children and the traditional family only played a small part.
In Western television programs, female characters had much fewer children or no children at all. The researchers found robust evidence that consumption of Western TV programs, which promoted smaller families, significantly lowered fertility. Their evidence suggests, along with other economic deterrents, that fertility decisions might be affected by role models and lifestyle choices promoted by the media. Such factors are usually ignored in social science studies.
Western German TV, which was not influenced by the state, aired completely different subject matters, information and programs than those seen on East German TV. Western TV programs provided a view of a much wealthier and prettier world. Furthermore, in the matter of family stereotypes, the contrast between the two types of TV programming was severe and. For example, in West German TV programs, that children played a small part. In fact, less than eight percent of the female characters on TV had children.
During the 1970s, most families on TV were depicted in a negative light and seemed especially prone to quarreling. Several studies on Western TV shows aired during the period under consideration found that most women on TV were unmarried, young, appealing, and didn’t work, while married women were depicted as maternal and lacking sex appeal. The labor participation rate among female characters never exceeded 50 percent; among married women, employment was less than 20 percent. At the same time, housework didn’t seem relevant, and only very few women were shown engaged in household activities.
In contrast to this, state-controlled TV in East Germany was employed to promote full employment of both men and women. It was also used to increase population size, and so a two-to-three-child policy was instituted. Several studies analyze how this family model was promoted on television. For example, in an analysis of family series of the 1980s, all the female characters are employed and bear the double burden of family and job with a high number of children, usually around four. These families and female characters are depicted in a positive light. In fact, showing problems with balancing family and work was taboo on government regulated TV in East Germany.
Meanwhile, TV in West Germany promoted lifestyles where having children was of little importance, and this idea took hold. Furthermore, West German TV contributed to spread images of consumption-oriented lifestyles, which also increased material aspirations, which is also likely to have had a depressing effect on fertility levels.
The big problem today facing Germany, Western Europe and the United States, however, is demographic winter. For example, deaths have exceeded births in Germany by more than 2.3 million since 1990, and more than 4 million since 1972. And, this downtrend is clearly accelerating.
In 1910, two million children were born in Germany every year. A century later, with 50% more people, less than 700,000 are born annually, of whom more than 200,000 are from foreign-born parents. In the last 40 years, four million more Germans died than were born. Italy, Greece, Portugal and Austria, among other countries in Europe, have a lousy demographic profile as well.
All this has contributed to the structurally low growth rate of the European economy for several decades, including the current crisis of the euro.
In the USA, lower fertility means less growth in the U.S. population, barring an increase in immigration, which is only slowly picking up. That means fewer workers to propel the economy and a smaller tax base to finance benefits for the elderly. The trend also promises to weigh on consumer spending, which fuels two-thirds of economic activity. Thus, if fewer women have children, there’s less buying of diapers, school supplies and homes to accommodate growing families.
Sources: “Television Role Models and Fertility – Evidence from a Natural Experiment” by Peter Bönisch and Walter Hyll, SOEP papers on Multidisciplinary Panel Data Research Television 2015; “Italy is a dying country as babies no longer replace people who die, says health minister” by Nick Squires, Telegraph Media Group, 02/13/15; and, “Baby Bust Threatens Growth: ‘Economists Say the Recession Ended in 2009, but Nobody Told American Women’” by Neil Shah, Wall Street Journal, 12/04/14.