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Regular version of the site

Russian Demography is Full of Pitfalls

Russia’s current demographic dynamics seem to be positive. Life expectancy is growing, and the population is growing, not only by means of migration from other post-Soviet countries, but also by natural increase, even if it is not big yet. At the same time, researchers assess the near demographic future with moderate optimism, which is mostly due to the forming age structure of the population, said Anatoly Vishnevsky, Director of the HSE Institute of Demography, in his report.

‘The most pressing problem of modern Russia’ – this is how the President characterized the demographic situation in the country in his Address to the Federal Assembly in May 2006. The trends of the recent year and, primarily, the growing number of births help in solving this problem. It would seem that the demographic ‘barometer’ today says ‘good weather’. But the question is what will the ‘weather’ be tomorrow. Anatoly Vishnevsky presented his forecasts in a report on ‘Russia’s Demographic Problems’ at a joint roundtable discussion hosted by HSE and the Liberal Mission Foundation.

The country has entered a more positive demographic orbit

The Russian population has been growing since 2009 after fourteen years of decline. Moreover, while initially the increase was provided by migration that exceeded the natural decrease, today’s growth in the number of Russians is the result of natural increase: in 2013-2014 the number of births exceeded the number of deaths.

However, the inflow of migrants is still the main source of Russia’s population growth. Migration grew sharply in the mid-1990s and remained considerable in the 2000s, which partly allowed Russia to fill the demographic ‘gaps’. ‘Over the 21 years of natural population decrease in Russia (1992-2012) its total amount was 13.2 million people, and the total amount of migration inflow over the same years was 8.4 million’, Vishnevsky said. ‘This allowed [Russia] to compensate for 63% of the natural decrease of the population over this period’.

Nevertheless, the natural increase in the Russian Federation’s population is a temporary phenomenon, Vishnevsky believes. Natural decrease will almost inevitably come back due to objective factors, which cannot be affected practically speaking. The key factor is the formed age structure of the population.

‘Demographic dividends’ are coming to an end

Changes in the age structure of the population usually occur in waves (waves of a high birth rate take turns with waves of a low birth rate; for example, the ‘children of the war’ generation is small, and the next after-war generation, is, by contrast, large). In the early 1990s, the age structure of the population was favourable. Russia was then starting to get the ‘demographic dividend’ related to the high number of able-bodied population (20-64 years of age). Such a situation with an able-bodied population a priori creates ‘friendly’ conditions for economic development.

Vishnevsky provided details of the ‘math’ involving able-bodied population numbers. Since the mid-1990s the share of the working-age population in Russia has been growing. In 2011, it reached its historical maximum – 66.3% of the total population.

The most impressive increase in the able-bodied population – over 5 million people – happened in 2005-2011. A lion’s share of it – 4.2 million – occurred in 2007-2010. Then the numerous generations of 1987-1990 reached their twenties, and the few ‘children of the war’ (born in 1942-1945) reached 65 and thus left the working age population.

Meanwhile, today, following the baby boom generation of the 1980s, the rather small generation of 1990s is entering the working age. The ‘demographic gap’ of the 1990s is shifting upwards in the age and gender pyramid, and the age layout is becoming far less favourable, especially when one takes into account the fact that the load on the able-bodied population on behalf of the elderly is growing.

Load on workers is growing

For a long time Russia lived under decreasing demographic pressure. Even if the load in terms of the elderly increased, this growth was compensated by less ‘pressure’ on the part of children. In 2011, the period of decreasing demographic load came to end, reaching its minimum – 507 dependants on 1,000 able-bodied persons – after which it started to grow. According to Vishnevsky, this growth will be considerable.

By the end of 2020s, the load will return to the level of early 1990s and will continue growing. This means a growing level of unsatisfied demand on the labour market and a growing need for foreign workers.

‘Postponed’ children provided the growing birth rate

Total fertility rate (TFR) – the number of births per one woman of reproductive age – has been growing in Russia for almost 15 years (given that the measures of the state’s pro-natal policy have been active since approximately the middle of this period – for example, the maternity fund was introduced in 2007). While in 2000 TFR did not reach even 1.2, in 2007, it was already 1.4, and by 2012, it reached 1.7 (it’s also worth noting that the number of abortions is decreasing thanks to wider use of contraception). In this birth rate trend, the key question is what the factors of this growth are and how sustainable this trend is. Pundits say that these factors include maternity- and child-friendly social policy and considerable oil revenues that were previously invested in it.

However, in attempting to explain the growing birth rate, it is impossible not to account for the changing number of mothers and shifts in the birth calendar, Anatoly Vishnevsky emphasized. Today the main input in the birth rate is provided not by women under 25, as before, but by women aged 25 to 39. If we look at the total fertility rate, it is obvious that ‘the TFR curve simply resembles the movement of curves for age groups with growing fertility’. According to Vishnevsky, the shift in fertility towards later ages, which started in Russia in the 1990s, is a trend that is typical for all developed countries.

‘Growth in the number of potential mothers age 25 and older together with growing fertility in these ages provided the increase in the number of births’, Vishnevsky concluded.

There will be fewer potential mothers

It is worrisome that the number in these, now the most fertile, ages will soon start decreasing.

The size of the group of women aged 25-29, which is essential for fertility, reached its maximum in 2012, and is followed by a decrease. By 2017, it will shrink by more than 1 million, Vishnevsky calculated. For women aged 30-34, 2018 will be the turning point. And there will be few younger mothers. The rather small group of ‘children of the 1990s’ has entered the reproductive age. ‘It will hardly be possible to maintain the current birth rate with such a decline in the number of potential mothers’, Vishnevsky commented.

Life expectancy restored after a decline

Positive demographic trends are also seen in life expectancy growth, which has taken place since 2004.

In 2013, life expectancy was higher than in 2003 – by 6.61 years among men, 4.46 years among women, and 5.93 years for both genders. Earlier, in 2012, life expectancy for both genders exceeded 70 years for the first time since 1987 (see also: Life expectancy grows in Russia).

However, according to Vishnevsky, this was only a restorative growth. Life expectancy indicators have only slightly exceeded the level of the late 1980s when the decline started.

Over the last several years mortality has essentially been decreasing for the same reasons it was growing at the turn of the 21st century – cardiac disease, cancer, infectious diseases and external causes, including murder, suicide, alcohol poisoning and car accidents (see also: Number of Tragic Deaths among the Elderly is Decreasing).

‘The situation among women is much better, where there is a clear advantage due to lower mortality from cardiac disease’, Vishnevsky commented. However, the overall difference is not big.

For decades, Russia has suffered considerable demographic losses due to insufficient control of high mortality, Vishnevsky concluded. Excessive deaths over these decades, especially among able-bodied men, numbers in millions. But, surprisingly enough, the related humanitarian and economic damage remains underestimated.

Western drift hollows out population from Asia

The situation with internal migration is also not easy. Russia’s population is distributed extremely unevenly. The Asian part occupies 75% of the country’s territory, but only 20% of its population lives there (29 million people).

27% of the country’s population lives in the Central Federal District (on less than 4% of its territory). The imbalance between the European and Asian parts of Russia is only growing, due to migration, which moves only westwards.

In other words, Siberia and the Far East remain underpopulated. There are only three big cities (and they are the foundation for settlement) east of the Urals: Novosibirsk, Omsk, and Krasnoyarsk (one third of all cities with a population greater than one million people).

This Western drift is virtually irreversible. It is promoted by the central regions’ need for workers and the general deficit of demographic resources, Vishnevsky emphasized.

Foreign workers are needed

‘There is a widespread idea that Russia ranks second after the U.S. as a global centre of attraction for migrants’, Vishnevsky mentioned. ‘It is based on a wrong interpretation of UN publications related to the so-called ‘migrant stock’, which means the general number of people who live not in the country of their birth’. According to the 2002 census, 12 million people born in other countries lived in Russia, mainly from former Soviet republics. They are considered by the UN experts as international migrants. But in terms of real inflow of migrants, especially if compared with the number of the country’s population, Russia is far from the leading positions.

At the same time, the need in migrants is not disputed: migrants from CIS countries are a demographic ‘safety net’ and fill the gaps on the labour market. This means that the range of issues related to assessing immigration as a demographic and economic resource, as a source of internal political and geopolitical risk, as well as to the ability to control migration processes, is exceptionally important for Russia in the 21st century, Vishnevsky emphasized.

This range of issues also deserves attention when considering global trends. The pressure of overpopulated poor countries on rich ones is only growing, and the economic importance of labour migration has become global, Vishnevsky concluded.


Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, April 21, 2015