Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Dying Bear: Russia's Demographic Decline

As fertility rates fall far below replacement level throughout the developed world (except the U.S.) and in many less developed countries, world population continues to grow.  Why?  Clearly not because women are having more babies than 50 or 100 years ago, they are having fewer.  But people are living longer, so that there are fewer deaths than births - for now - creating major imbalances between the old and the young who support them.  The demographic imbalance also takes the form of a declining ratio of females to males, due to sex-selective abortion and infanticide.  Both kinds of imbalance will result in a dramatic decline in the number of young women in the main childbearing years of the 20s.  The result will be, not only a declining population in absolute terms but also a declining proportion of working-age men and women to support those in their later years.

But Russia is an exception.  Its population has already entered a long-term decline that will be very hard to stop or reverse without 'heroic' and improbable increases in fertility rates in coming decades.  Why?  Because Russia, like most countries, is not only going through a sharp decline in fertility but unlike others, it is not experiencing declining mortality rates.  Quite the reverse. Life expectancy, especially for males, is shockingly low even by the standards of the poorest countries in the world ravaged by disease, famine, and war.  It has been a 'net mortality' society for almost 20 years already, with no sign that this trend will be reversed any time soon, even with net immigration.

In what follows, Marcus Roberts summarizes, for the Demography unit of the excellent MercatorNet website, the recent analysis by leading demographer Nicholas Eberstadt in Foreign Affairs magazine (subscription required, hence the summary).

Eberstadt on Russia’s Demographic Decline
Marcus Roberts | 18 Nov 2011 | comment

Over the course of 2011, this blog has from time to time drawn attention to the demographic malaise affecting Russia.  Shannon blogged back in April on the lack of men in that country and how alcohol addiction has played a large part in that problem.  Indeed, the decline in Russian population since the fall of the Iron Curtain has been simply remarkable and unprecedented – it was not without reason that the first international demographic summit was held in Moscow in June this year.  The Russian political leaders have tried to reverse their declining population, including turning to the Virgin Mary for help.

Now, in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, a world renowned demographer, Nicholas Eberstadt, has published a very informative article about Russia, entitled “The Dying Bear” (as you can imagine from the title, he does not envisage a very rosy future for Russia…) Unfortunately, the article is not available free online, so I can only link you to the opening few paragraphs and urge you to try and get hold of the article from somewhere.  In essence, Eberstadt argues that Russia is in trouble demographically due to its very high mortality rates. 

The trouble is that Russia is a “net mortality society” – since 1992, about 12.5 million more Russians have been buried than have been born.  Thus, since 1992 Russia’s population has fallen every year (except 1993 and 2010) and this decline has only been softened by immigration, mainly from former Soviet states.  Although Russia is not alone in the World in suffering population decline (Eberstadt points to Germany, Italy and Japan as countries that are about to enter into or are already in sustained population decline) the difference for Russia is that its health conditions are deteriorating, adding to already high death rates. 

According to the Human Mortality Database, a research consortium, overall life expectancy at birth in Russia was slightly lower in 2009 than it was in Russia in 1961!  More shockingly, in 2009:

“…overall life expectancy at age 15 was estimated to be lower in Russia than in Bangladesh, East Timor, Eritrea, Madagascar, Niger and Yemen; even worse, Russia’s adult male life expectancy was estimated to be lower than Sudan’s, Rwanda’s, and even AIDS-ravaged Botswana’s.”

What is the cause of this terrible situation?  Apparently, it is due to:

“…an explosion in deaths from cardio-vascular disease and what epidemiologists call ‘external causes’, such as poisoning, injury, suicide, homicide, traffic fatalities, and other violent accidents.”
Why Russia’s health is quite so bad though and why death rates are quite so high in an urbanized and literate, peacetime society is anyone’s guess.  “The brute fact is that no one understands why Russians are as unhealthy as they are.” 

The Kremlin is not unaware of these facts and is trying to reverse this trend by introducing new public policies, including subsidies for mothers who have a second or third child.  Although these measures seem to have had some effect – birth rates have recently risen while death rates have decreased – there are some unavoidable features of Russia’s demographic future that will have to be overcome.  The first is that the recent birth slump has meant that there will be fewer potential mothers in the next few years:

“Women between 20 and 29 years of age bear nearly two-thirds of Russia’s babies.  In 2025, Russia is projected to have just 6.4 million women in their 20s, 45 percent fewer than today…[u]nder such circumstance, simply maintaining current national birth totals would require heroic upsurges in maternity.”

Added to this, Russia is getting older. By 2025, the proportion of the Russian population aged 65 years and older will have grown from 13 percent to almost 19 percent.  Thus, “[a]s a result of ageing alone, per capita mortality in Russia would rise by more than 20 per cent if nothing else changed.”

Taking all of this into account, “Russia is likely to remain a net mortality society for the foreseeable future”.  Russia’s federal statistics agency, Rosstat, envisions a cumulative total of deaths over births of between 4.7 and 9.5 million between 2011 and 2030.  The only way to forestall further depopulation is through massive immigration from abroad.  However, even this answer is not as complete as it once was.  Changes to education policies in former Soviet Union states means that immigrants from these countries are speaking less Russian than their parents did while Russian attitudes to immigrants has also grown less welcoming. 
This is an excellent analysis by Eberstadt, but the one glaring omission in his piece is Russia’s obscenely high abortion rate.  Over a million abortions a year is surely a massive factor in Russia’s demographic decline!  Reducing this number would be one way to reduce the surfeit of deaths over births in Russia in the coming years.

Eberstadt argues that these demographic figures aren’t just intellectually interesting.  They will have a large impact in the military-political sphere, where Russia will have to face future problems with a population base that is declining.  This means fewer people to join the army – between 2008 and 2017, the pool of prospective recruits into the conscript army is set to fall by almost 40%! Added to this, Russia’s higher education and technical training is also in disarray – Russia is “a society characterized by high levels of schooling but low levels of health, knowledge and education”.  This means that “Russia’s conventional military is on track to become the Polish cavalry of coming generations”.  However, as Eberstadt points out, Russia also has a very large non-conventional arsenal, and in a neighbourhood which includes North Korea, Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republics, will a worried Kremlin be more ready to reach for the threat of nuclear weapons?  All this means that “a healthy, robust Russia is not just in the interest of the Russian people; it is in the interest of the rest of the World, too”.  Let us hope that the Russian leaders and the Russian people can somehow reverse the current trend.  For everyone’s sake.

Retrieved November 17, 2011 from

1 comment:

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