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Young People Seek Self-fulfillment

People's lives today are more flexible, while individual biographies – even though they may look like 'games without rules' to an outsider – are in fact carefully designed around personal choices. These are the main themes of a paper by Sergey Zakharov and Ekaterina Mitrofanova published in the monograph Russia and China: Youth in the 21st Century. Although the paper focuses mainly on young Russians' reproductive behavior, its content goes beyond demographics and addresses certain existential aspects, such as non-stereotypical biographies of modern people and their diverse identities, values, ​​and desires

A typical young Russian today matures slowly and almost reluctantly. They tend to spend more time on education and self-exploration and put off getting married and having children. Life events such as finishing school or college, getting one's first job, getting married, and having children no longer occur one after another over a short period of 3 to 5 years, as they used to in the past, note Sergey Zakharov, Deputy Director of the HSE's Institute of Demography, and Ekaterina Mitrofanova, Junior Research Fellow of the HSE's Laboratory of Social and Demographic Policies, in their paper The Demographic Characteristics of Russian Youth published in the monograph Russia and China: Youth in the 21st Century (Moscow, The New Chronograph, 2014). According to Zakharov and Mitrofanova, for Russians born since the early 1980s, the aforementioned life events, commonly understood as steps towards becoming a mature adult, tend to be spread over a longer period, because younger people take more time to find suitable employment, residence, and a life partner.

Depending on individual preferences, different life episodes may get shuffled in order, or even omitted entirely. In fact, there is less social pressure to follow a certain pattern for better or for worse, official marriage is no longer imperative either from societal or from a personal perspective, and has been partly replaced by cohabitation. Increasingly, children are born to unwed couples – if the couple chooses to parent, that is. Postponing childbirth till later in life is sometimes associated with childlessness, either voluntary or involuntary.

In any event, different episodes of one's life story no longer fit the established pattern. In contrast to Soviet times, when little space was available for individual choices, today's young Russians live less predictable lives.

Zakharov and Mitrofanova's paper is based on findings from the 'Recent demographic trends in Russia and their consideration in socioeconomic forecasting' project, carried out as part of the HSE's Programme of Fundamental Studies in 2013.

Free Market Has Affected Demographic Stereotypes

The socio-economic transformations that occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s largely contributed to the twists and turns of modern lifestyles. Such contexts always affect people's values and behaviour – in fact, the longer it takes for the situation in the country to change, the more homogeneous the behavior of different generations, and vice versa, note the researchers.

In Soviet times, sexual, marital, and reproductive behaviors were tightly linked, with marriage and first offspring following each other closely. Official marriage was associated with tangible socio-economic benefits, such as the possibility of moving in together as a family and receiving an apartment from the state, getting a promotion at work, and other incentives.

However, since the 1970s generations whose socialisation occurred at the time of reforms, life course changes have been observed, such as an increased interval between marriage and the birth of a child. Young women faced with wider educational, career, and lifestyle options, "no longer view marriage as the only path to self-fulfillment," the authors explain.

Russians born in the 1980s and 1990s who seem to be well aware of the potential conflict between family and career are even more likely to avoid early maturity. On the other hand, society no longer insists on traditional lifestyle patters and is increasingly comfortable with unmarried couples, children born out of wedlock, and divorce. Many things which used to be socially unacceptable are the norm today.

A New Understanding of Freedom

According to Zakharov and Mitrofanova, young Russians differ drastically from previous generations in terms of attitudes and expectations and adhere to values which used to be suppressed, such as freedom, independence, and individuality; they tend to be more ambitious and mobile, and they act in new ways, no longer constrained by stereotypes.

Perhaps the single common denominator of many young Russians today is that they seek self-fulfillment and career success and invest in their own human capital to increase their value on the labour market – and postpone marriage and childbearing, regarding them as things of less importance to them than individual success at this time of their lives.

It is no accident that people tend to get married at a later age, and starting a family before the age of 25 is no longer considered a norm in Russia. According to the 2010 census, more than 40% of men and one in four women have not married by the age of 30 – the authors describe it as an 'enormous change' in lifestyle.

The paper quotes a few other figures illustrating the new demographic trends. In the 1950s generations, half of the women registered marriage within one year of living with a partner, while only 30% of the women born in the 1970s did so, and today's young Russians are in no hurry to formalise their live-in partnerships.

Parenting Viewed as a Choice

Young people today have rationalised the instinct of procreation and consider parenting an individual choice rather than a universal demographic duty to society. This choice may be determined by economic considerations – young people tend to postpone parenting in order to get an education and a well-paid job so they can provide for the offspring.

They are equally pragmatic in terms of having more than one child. "If the family income is not very high, many young people believe it is better to have just one child and give them a good education and a decent start in life," the researchers explain.

Postponing childbirth naturally leads to lower birth rates.

However, the decline in fertility is nothing new in Russia, where none of the post-war generations managed to achieve the replacement fertility rate of 2.1 children per woman. The cohorts born in the 1970s are still in their reproductive years, but their fertility rate is estimated at 1.6 children per woman.

Out-of-wedlock Births the New Norm

Russian society appears to have accepted childbearing outside of marriage; some couples see no difference between raising a child in an official or informal marriage, while others formalise their relationship a few years after the birth of child. A single woman may decide to have a child 'for herself', and for some women, financial considerations may play a role, since the single parent status comes with certain benefits (although a woman officially considered a single mother may in fact live in an informal partnership). In any case, people tend to think through these various demographic scenarios before acting them out.

"Russians now have an opportunity to use the most resourceful time of one's life – the younger years – in a more efficient way," Zakharov and Mitrofanova conclude. "Thus, they tend to start planning their lives as early as possible and incorporate the type of life events and sequences of events which they themselves prefer to experience."


Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, October 31, 2014