Insights into elite demographic behaviour

Having power, having babies? Fertility patterns among German elite politicians

Having power, having babies? Fertility patterns among German elite politicians

Ansgar Hudde, Carmen Friedrich

ZfF – Zeitschrift für Familienforschung / Journal of Family Research, Issue 1-2019, S. 27-39


Members of the political elite have far-reaching influence on the overall society. In this paper, we analyse fertility patterns among the German political elite for two reasons: First, we learn more about the living circumstances of a subgroup that makes crucial decisions and could serve as a role model for the general population. Second, we gain insight into the association between social status and fertility patterns at the top tier of the status distribution. We collect biographical data from all high-rank politicians in Germany in 2006 and/or 2017, comprising 184 women and 353 men. We compare fertility patterns in this subgroup to the general population, as well as we differentiate the number of children by politicians’ gender, region (eastern/western Germany), party affiliation, and other variables. Results show that, on average, male politicians have relatively many children: 2.0 in western Germany, and 2.2 in eastern Germany. Female politicians have very few children in western Germany (1.3) and relatively many in eastern Germany (1.9). The east-west gap between men and women is entirely driven by differences in childlessness. For men, the observation of high fertility in this high-status group could hint towards a positive association between social status and fertility at the top of the status distribution. For women, large east-west differences in this subgroup could mean that the association between social status and fertility at the top of the status distribution might be negative or positive, depending on macro-level characteristics such as gender norms and work-family reconciliation policies.

Key words: fertility, elite, politicians, number of children, family, biographical data


1. Introduction and background

This paper aims to provide first novel insights into the demographic behaviour of a subgroup of the population relevant for its far-reaching influence on society. Our three main motivations for this descriptive analysis of fertility patterns of elite politicians are as follows: First, we can observe the lives of people who make influential decisions that influence society. Political decisions and efforts may be influenced by politicians’ individual backgrounds, including the number of children they have (Baumann et al. 2013). Parenthood might also have an influence on political success (Smith 2017).

Second, because of their prestige, elites could serve as role models for the general population, and thus influence their behaviour (Bohlken 2011: 70; Skirbekk 2008). Therefore, it is interesting to investigate characteristics such as parenthood – especially in Germany, a country known for low fertility rates.

Third, we can learn more about the link between social status and fertility by looking at a subgroup at the top of the societal status distribution. Fully understanding an association means understanding it in all parts of the distribution. As many associations are not linear, it is dangerous to extrapolate associations from the middle of the distribution to the upper or lower end. Regular representative surveys do not capture elite groups – the upper end of the social status distribution – in adequate numbers. High education levels among women, high income, and a heavy workload are often associated with childlessness or low number of children. Exploring the number of children born to elite politicians will enlighten whether this association is also prevalent when high status characteristics are pronounced: Elite politicians are characterized by high education, far-above average incomes, very heavy workloads, societal power, and prestige. So, how many children do they have?

Elite studies in Germany. Although elites are a popular research topic in the German social sciences (cf. Hoffmann-Lange 2001), none of the previous studies have investigated fertility patterns. The main target groups in elite studies have been comprised of individuals from different elite sectors including politics, business, public administration, the judiciary branch, associations, science, culture, and media (compare term “elite pluralism” by Hoffmann-Lange, 2003: 114). Previous elite studies have focused on social background, career paths, connections between the elite sectors and attitudes towards social inequality (Bürklin/Rebenstorf 1997; Gruber 2009; Hartmann 2013; Kaltefleiter/Wildenmann 1972; Wildenmann et al. 1982; Wildenmann 1968). Our goal is to fill the research gap regarding fertility patterns by studying one specific elite group, which Hoffmann-Lange (1992: 403f) describes as one of the most influential and powerful – and therefore most important – elite groups: politicians.

Fertility in eastern and western Germany. Germany has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world (Buhr/Huinink 2015). In the general population, women born in the 1950s in eastern Germany have on average 1.8 children, while their counterparts from the west have around 1.6 children. In the subsequent cohorts, fertility patterns converged as the number of births declined sharply in eastern Germany and only moderately in western Germany. For women born between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s, the average number of children is between 1.5 and 1.6 in both regions. Although the average number of children is similar for this cohort, parity structures differ by region: In the west, women are more likely to remain childless than in the east, but those that have a first child are more likely to also have a second,third, or fourth (childless: 21% vs. 14%, share with 3+ children: 18% vs. 13% for women born in the 1960s, Bujard/Lück 2015; Goldstein/Kreyenfeld 2011). We are not aware of any comprehensive data on cohort fertility patterns of men in Germany.

Findings on social status and fertility: Men. The reported studies use education and/or income as proxy measures for social status. Very few deal with the association between social status and the number of children born to men in Germany (these are: Miettinen et al. 2015; Ruckdeschel/Naderi 2009; Schmitt 2005). Available evidence from Germany and other western societies suggests that men with high social status are less likely to remain childless in most countries, mainly because they are less likely to remain single (Barthold et al. 2012; Hopcroft 2015; Miettinen et al. 2015; Trimarchi/Van Bavel 2017). In the Nordic countries – where data quality on this subject is best – men with high social status have a higher average number of children (Jalovaara et al. 2017; Kravdal/Rindfuss 2008; Nisén et al. 2018).

Findings on social status and fertility: Women. In Germany, women with higher levels of education and longer working hours tend to postpone motherhood, are more likely to remain childless, and have fewer children on average. These associations are stronger in western Germany than in eastern Germany (Blossfeld/Huinink 1991; Bujard 2015; Dorbritz 2015; Kreyenfeld/Konietzka 2017). Typical explanations for these east-west differences include differences in gender norms and in work-family reconciliation policies between these regions (e.g. Hudde/Engelhardt 2017). In eastern Germany work-family reconciliation is more favourable because the offer of public childcare is higher and the attitudes towards working mothers are more supportive (e.g. Zoch/Hondralis 2017). In international and comparative research, a number of authors argue that the association of social status and fertility is becoming less negative or even vanishing over time, especially in the Nordic countries (Jalovaara et al. 2017; Kravdal/Rindfuss 2008; Skirbekk 2008). Recent changes in German family policy indicate a development towards the Nordic model (Fleckenstein 2011). However, there is no empirical evidence that shows the association between fertility and social status to have vanished. Based on these findings, we expect to observe low fertility rates among female elite politicians in Germany, especially in western Germany.

This study. In this study, we analyse fertility patterns of 537 high-ranking German politicians and compare their number of children to those of the general population.

2. Data

The data set. We adopt Gruber’s (2009) definition of the German political elite, understood in a positional sense (Positionselite): Someone belongs to the elite if she or he is in a position with access to influence and power (Gruber 2009: 41; Hoffmann-Lange 1992: 20). Gruber (2009) defines 369 positions of the German executive and legislative branches as the political elite at both the regional and federal level, including positions such as party leaders, ministers, heads of government, parliamentary party group leaders, committee chairs, and secretaries of state (for the list of all positions, see Gruber 2009: 275ff). As for this study, we analyse politicians that are in the Gruber’s list (cut-off date: March 1st, 2006) and add all politicians that held the same positions on July 1st, 2017 (some politicians hold an elite position in both years). The overall data set includes 670 politicians.

Data collection. We collected data from all 670 top politicians in July and August 2017. All data (except for position and party) are respective to the year 2017. Our data stem from three sources, listed here in order of priority: (1) the Munzinger biographical online database (, (2) numerous volumes of Kürschner’s collection of self-written short biographies of members of federal and state parliaments (e.g. Holzapfel 2016; see dataset for full list), and (3) Wikipedia. If none of the above sources reported information about children, we assumed that the politician is childless. To challenge this assumption, we explored various other sources (e.g. media reports; web-pages of the politician, parties or parliaments), which in several cases directly confirmed our assumption with explicit statements of the politician being childless. For the remainder, additional sources did not mention whether the politician did or did not have children. Most importantly, there was not a single case for which the additional sources contradicted our assumption that the politician was childless. We are therefore confident that our information on the number of children is reliable; however, we might still slightly underestimate the actual number of children by using this approach. The data set available online at Datorium shows all politicians and the sources used to gather their information (Friedrich/ Hudde 2018).

Sample selection. As we are interested in the final number of children, we study women aged 45+ and men aged 50+ in 2017 (82%, n=549). As we are also interested in differences by party affiliation, we further exclude politicians from very small parties (n=4) or without party affiliations (n=8). We also calculated mean values including these politicians, and our results were robust. The final sample size for our analysis is 537 German elite politicians.

Reference data: Number of children in the general population. To compare the average number of children born to top politicians with the overall population, we used data from the 2012 Microcensus (RDC of the Federal Statistical Office and Statistical Offices of the Länder 2012). Our reference data refer to the politicians’ own birth cohorts, resulting in cohort-weighted averages. We compare our sample of elite politicians to two groups: the general female population and the general female population with a university degree (84% of elite politicians have a university degree). Unfortunately, we have neither reference data for male fertility in the general population nor the general male population with a university degree.

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