SONNEBERG, Germany — At first glance, this town in central Germany, with rows of large houses built when it was a thriving center of toy manufacturing, looks tidy and prosperous. But Heiko Voigt, the deputy mayor here, can point out dozens of vacant homes that he doubts will ever be sold.
The reality is that the German population is shrinking and towns like this one are working hard to hide the emptiness. Mr. Voigt has already supervised the demolition of 60 houses and 12 apartment blocs, strategically injecting grassy patches into once-dense complexes.
"We are trying to keep the town looking good," he said.
There is perhaps nowhere better than the German countryside to see the dawning impact of Europe's plunge in fertility rates over the decades, a problem that has frightening implications for the economy and the psyche of the Continent. In some areas, there are now abundant overgrown yards, boarded-up windows and concerns about sewage systems too empty to work properly. The work force is rapidly graying, and assembly lines are being redesigned to minimize bending and lifting.