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Traditional Family is in Revival

The Russian family has been becoming more demographically heterogeneous over recent years. Some of the families follow the trend of having many children: women more often give birth to a third and fourth child, and the gap between births is decreasing, which makes the evolution of the family faster. At the same time, younger generations are inclined to postpone marriage and having their first child, which leads either to later motherhood or to childlessness. This means that two opposite trends are developing; along with the growing share of ‘Western-type’ families, with postponed parenthood and fewer children, there is a revival of the traditional family with more children, Sergey Zakharov, Deputy Director of the HSE Institute of Demography, reported.

The Russian family is transforming. Its qualitative changes, such as the boom in partnerships without marriage, postponing marriage, fragility of marriage etc, are all topics for separate studies (see: Young people are in no hurry to marry, Out of Wedlock Does Not Mean Fatherless, Cohabitation Precedes Rather than Replaces Marriage). But quantitative changes in the family are also important. They are related to the number of children, the gap between births, and the mother’s age. The picture here is varied and includes trends in various directions, Sergey Zakharov said. He presented his paper ‘Recent Trends of Birth Rate in Russia in the Context of Existing Demographic Theories’ at an international conference 'Demographic History and Demographic Theory: From Description to Explanation', which took place at the HSE Institute of Demography.

On one hand, the number of childless women is growing. In generations born in the second half of 1980s, the share of ultimately childless women can reach 15% (this is the average level in developed countries). This is related not only to infertility issues, but also to postponing the birth to the moment when it’s difficult to give birth and raise children, due to, among other things, health problems. But such a story can also have a happy ending, when a woman in ‘late fertile’ age gives birth to a child. Such a model of ‘older’ fertility is considered one of the signs of demographic modernization, a ‘second demographic transmission’, in which Western countries pioneered. Russia, with a certain lag, is now following this general trend.

On the other hand, some Russian families have gone the other way, to a more traditional model, in terms of the number of children and the speed of family growth. It grows when third and fourth children are born. Mothers are ‘becoming younger’. Among women born in the 1980s, ‘the probability of third births reaches peak values by their 30s’, a situation which was previously observed in generations born in the 1950s.

In this context, the main question is whether the demographic modernization in Russia has moved ‘a step back’, said Sergey Zakharov.

Large families: repetition of the baby boom of 1980s

The expert used different tools to study demographic processes: a statistical ‘microscope’ (with the focus on changes in birth rate over the last two decades), and a historical ‘telescope’ – a retrospective of the birth rate in Russia since mid-19th century.

As part of the second process, ‘you can only see the big picture from a distance’, it turned out that the birth rate has been declining in Russia for almost a century. The 1920s – 1930s became the turning point when women started having much fewer children than the generation of their mothers. Since then, this has been a trend: each next generation of women has had, on average, less children than their mothers did. This trend is also active today and creates gaps in the quantitative reproduction of generations.

The ‘statistical microscope visualizes’ a more optimistic picture. In over one third of rural areas, the total fertility rate (TFR; number of births per woman) was over 2.7, and this happened for the first time in the last 25 years. Comparably, a TFR of 2.1 provides mere reproduction of the generation (but as the share of childless women grows, this number grows considerably, to 2.5 births per woman who has children). According to Rosstat, the average TFR in Russia in 2014 was 1.75.

At the same time, the trend of growing TFR thanks to women giving birth to three and more children, is also increasing, the expert mentioned.

The number of families with three and more children is also growing. In 2014, the expected share of women with three children by the end of their fertile period among those who have children almost reached this indicator of 1985-1987, the most recent peak of fertility (see the left-hand diagram on Fig. 1). The share of such women is approaching 20%, and the share of women with four children is close to 10% (see the right-hand diagram).

Figure 1

Comments: The calculation includes only women who have given birth to at least one live child; different colour curves show the change in the share of women who have one, two, three, and four children.

It’s notable that the share of women with two children among those who have any children hasn’t really changed since the generation born in the 1970s and is stable at about 40% (red curve on Fig. 1). And the share of women who have only one child (blue curve) has been decreasing since the 1990s, the researcher added.

The mother’s age at the time of giving birth is decreasing among women born in the 1980s (right-hand part of Fig.2). This is also true for second, third, fourth, and fifth births. First births are an exception: the age of first time motherhood has consistently increased since the mid-1990s and reached 25 by 2014. Generally, the fertility age has stopped increasing in Russia, the expert believes.

Figure 2

Source: author’s calculations based on Human Fertility Database and unpublished official Rosstat data

Families evolve faster

In the context of ‘fertility no longer growing older’, the average gap between births has also been decreasing. ‘In 2014, we observed the smallest gap between first and second births in the history of observation (left part of Fig. 3),’ Sergey Zakharov said. ‘Such a gap, less than four years on average, could not even be observed even in the post-war period.’

Russia demonstrates signs of a changing age profile and families’ growth rate, the researcher concluded. But it should be taken into account that these new rates of family evolution are specific mainly for rural areas, with certain socio-demographic and ethno-cultural characteristics.

Figure 3

Source: author’s calculations based on Human Fertility Database and unpublished official Rosstat data

Fertility gap between the city and the rural areas has grown

The expert mentioned the growing gap between urban and rural areas in terms of TFR. According to Rosstat, the average TFR in Russia is 1.75, with 1.59 in urban areas and 2.34 in rural areas. ‘Since the early 1990s, the TFR in urban and rural areas were been moving closer,’ Zakharov said, ‘The gap was bridged primarily due to to rural fertility approaching the urban level.’ And now, the difference between urban and rural indicators has returned to the level of late 1980s-early 1990s.

Figure 4

Urban areas in Russia have become more differentiated in terms of fertility (Fig. 5). Variations of TFR by region in rural areas ‘have exceeded the level of the late 1970s and even the 1950s’, the researcher noted.

Fertility growing in ethnic republics

The number of regions with fertility considerably exceeding the average fertility in Russia has grown.

Figure 5

Sergey Zakharov a socio-demographic portrait of groups where fertility is growing.

According to the researcher, the number of third and fourth births is growing mainly in rural areas, in ethnic republics and ethnic groups, which had high levels of fertility until quite recently. In fact, they haven’t completed the transformation to lower fertility and now have won their positions back.

The main question is how the process of demographic modernization is occuring in Russia. It turns out that it is moving in different directions. ‘The Russian population is becoming more heterogeneous’, Zakharov commented, ‘Some more educated groups plan the number of children, follow Western standards in terms of reproduction, and probably move in the same direction as families in Western countries. Other social groups, areas and ethnic groups, whose share has recently been growing, are experiencing a revival of the traditional marriage, family, and fertility rates’.

Such a revival could have been catalyzed by state and regional fertility support measures, as well as migration processes, Zakharov believes. ‘In 2014, 30% of fertility surplus was among the people who had foreign citizenship, either mother or father, or both of them,’ the expert commented, ‘And in 2013, only such families showed increasing fertility’.

The heterogeneity of Russian population is growing and the concept of the family is developing in different directions simultaneously.


Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, November 18, 2015