June 1st, 2006


The Prenzlauerbergers are dying out

Here's an image of a wallpaper shop. Not your typical wallpaper shop, admittedly; this one looks more like a hip record store, strips of retro wallpaper in the window taking the place of the latest indie releases on boutique labels like Tomlab or Staubgold. ExtraTapete is in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin. And standing before the store admiring its tasteful paper designs you can see one of the well-educated, well-dressed young women who make up a large percentage of the area's population.

Ah, Prenzlauer Berg! Lovely, leafy Prenzlauer Berg! Place of elegant cafes, organic vegetable markets, Slow Life and push-chairs. It's where I am right now, and as I write I can hear the voices of children on the stair. Children are the Little Princes of Prenzlauer Berg. They strut around astride little wooden bikes -- ethical toys! -- or perch on the back of the big black Dutch bicycles their parents ride up and down the sacrosanct cycle paths. They're usually toddlers, cute and cool and so German, relaxed bobo hippy children. Their parents seem to be self-employed; they're always ready to meet their kids at pre-school at 3pm and take them to play in the gardens on Helmholtz Platz.

Prenzlauer Berg is Berlin's yuppie baby boom area, the place where cool 20- and 30-somethings come to breed. It's where my friends Eric and Antonia live, with their children Lucas and Roxy. It's where other couple-friends of mine have headed to spawn, sooner or later, little Berlin-lings and Berlin-ettes, new baby Berliners.

But, according to an article in last week's Exberliner, the Germans are dying out. They're dying out because they're failing to reach the "replacement level" of 2.1 births per couple. And it's precisely in districts like Prenzlauer Berg that they're dying out fastest, for Prenzlauer Berg is full of university graduates, the group least keen to reproduce.

"Prenzlauer Berg's reported baby boom is a myth, according to the Berlin Institute for Demography, attributable largely to journalists misinterpreting birth rate figures and seeing playgrounds teeming with toddlers," Exberliner reports. "The Berlin Institute says Prenzlauer Berg is in reality one of Berlin's least fertile districts. Just 35 children per every 1000 women were born there in 2003.... Steffen Kröhnert of the Berlin Institute says that Prenzlauer Berg's figures look high at first glance because the district is home to a disproportionately large number of young women of child-bearing age. (There are twice as many women of this age [15-40] in Prenzlauer Berg as there are in Cloppenburg, for example.) "What this means is that it took double the number of women in Prenzlauer Berg to produce approximately the same amount of children as there are in Cloppenburg," says Kröhnert. "If this trend were to continue in the long term, then the number of people in Prenzlauer Berg would decrease by half with every generation. This can hardly be described as a model for the future."

Now, I seem to be attracted to places with this sort of dwindling birth scenario. As Marxy liked to point out back in his "terminal decline" days, Japan also has a serious demographic problem, with the old staying alive ever-longer, and not enough young coming along to replace them. In a recent BBC Radio 4 documentary about Japan, the message was clear: Japanese women in their 20s and 30s are increasingly preferring lapdogs to babies. It's certainly true of my friend Reika.

Of course, I'm not helping either. I haven't reproduced. I'm not sure I want to. Much as I adore my sister's kids (and, with three, she's actually increasing the population of Scotland), I don't feel children would be compatible with my glamorously uprooted lifestyle. The way I live now, I can't afford them. The Momuses are dying out, just like the Germans and the Japanese.

I take comfort in the idea, though, that, even if there are no Momuses, Germans or Japanese in the world at some future point, the idea of Momus-ness, German-ness and Japanese-ness will still be available, as essences, cultural identities, ways of thinking, living, eating, being. Synthetic lifestyles for the children who are now being born to plug into, should they want to. Of course, should they do that effectively, these kids will, themselves, fall into genetic decline, becoming, as Morrissey sings, "the last of the family line". That's something university graduates, lapdog lovers, Prenzlauer Bergers and Momuses have in common: we're all "sterilizers".