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Growing Up across Generations

Different ways of parting with childhood in the USSR and today’s Russia

© makyzz / iStock

Getting an education and a job, leaving the parental home and starting a family are some of the the milestones of growing up. For Russians in their thirties today, these stages do not necessarily follow a pre-set sequence and often overlap. In contrast to their parents, linear and predictable biographies are increasingly rare among Russian millennials, whose lives tend to look more like a patchwork of diverse events than a straight line. Some of these events, especially childbirth, often get postponed until later in life. For young Russians today, having children tends to be the last stage in their own transition to maturity, according to demographer Ekaterina Mitrofanova.

Revolutionaries of 1970s

One's life story being a linear chain of events isa thing of the past, according to data from a survey of Russians born in the 1980s. A typical Soviet-era biography that follows the well-worn track of 'education-job-family' is no longer a given. Instead, today's life scenarios are more flexible and resemble a mosaic. These biographies include clusters and conflicts of storylines, pauses and postponed events, such as marriage or childbirth.

Having compared the biographies of Soviet and post-Soviet Russians, Mitrofanova discusses the ways in which people's paths to adulthood have changed over time. Her analysis is based on the findings from three waves (2004, 2007 and 2011) of the survey 'Parents and Children, Men and Women in Family and Society' conducted as part of the Generations and Gender research programme launched by the UN. The sample included 5451 respondents spanning six generations of Russians, the oldest born between 1930 and 1939 and the youngest (early millennials) between 1980 and 1986.

According to some researchers, even before millennials, the 1970s generation of 'perestroika teens' were the first to challenge life course stereotypes.

The seventies generation whose entry into young adulthood coincided with the USSR’s collapse saw multiple new opportunities and lifestyle options opening up in the socioeconomic (getting an education and a first job and moving away from parents) and demographic (partnership, marriage and having one's first child) spheres and began trying them out.

 Suddenly it turned out that changing one's occupation and workplace, beliefs and lifestyle multiple times was okay.
 Sex, marriage and childbearing that used to be perceived as an almost monolithic triad broke down into separate, not necessarily connected parts. The sexual revolution led to more unions taking the form of cohabitation/partnership instead of officially registered marriage. It also turned out that children could be born out of wedlock to women in their thirties, and it was also okay to remain childless if having a career was more important.
 It became clear that biographical milestones could be reshuffled or tackled several at a time. The traditional sequence of events no longer applied. While employment used to always come after college, it became possible to work while studying for a degree or to study for a second degree while already in employment.

Different Starts in Life

Young people today are in no hurry to settle down on a specific career path: instead, they spend a while trying out a variety of options in terms of occupation, relationships and hobbies in order to choose the ones that fit them best. As a result, they tend to take longer to leave their parents. According to one study, approximately 40% of people born between 1930 and 1970 believe eighteen to be the appropriate age for leaving the parental home, while the 1980s generation consider the age for starting an independent life to be much higher at 23-25, when many people have already completed their education, found a job and saved some money.

Connections between growing-up landmarks have also changed. Leaving the parental home today may be associated with various life events, such as finding a job or getting married (entering a live-in relationship), while for the 1930s and 1940s generations who were growing up after the Second World War at the time of universal labour mobilisation, the beginning of an independent life was almost always linked to employment.

The same applies to those who were born between 1950 and 1969 and entered adulthood at the peak of the Cold War and during the war in Afghanistan, when young people were expected to take up adult responsibilities early. 

'To make sure that the working class and the conscription pool were large enough, [the government] pursued a policy of encouraging working occupations, put up barriers to university enrolment and cancelled military deferrals for college students', according to the researcher. 'As a result, life events marking adulthood were occurring fast and following one another closely for many people'. 

One can see it particularly clearly in the lives of men born in the 1960s. With more than 80% of them having served in the army, it was common for these men to marry and start a family immediately after demobilisation, in their early twenties.  

Starting a family often coincided with finding one's first employment and setting up one's first home, either provided at a location where one was assigned to work after graduation or granted to a young family with children. Women usually left their parents' home upon marriage. 

This package got unbundled for both genders in subsequent generations, when leaving the parental family became increasingly associated with getting an education or a job.

Pauses, Moratoriums and Leaps

Today, researchers note a longer interval between finishing secondary school (commonly understood as the end of one's childhood) and other growing-up events; it appears as if one's life is put on a pause at this stage. This pause is usually associated with pursuing further education, such as a university degree.

Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson described undergraduate years as a kind of 'psychosocial moratorium' when a young person can partake in adult life, e.g. vote, get a job, be in a relationship, drink alcohol, drive a car, etc., but while still studying, he or she does not face all the responsibilities that come with being an adult. 

The sequence of growing-up events has been changing as well. In generations raised and socialised in the USSR, childbirth usually followed marriage and was not necessarily the final step in their transition to maturity. In contrast, childbearing for post-Soviet generations is, in most cases, the last in the sequence of events leading to adulthood and increasingly occurs in a partnership rather than official marriage. 

While Russians born between 1960 and 1974 are characterised by the lowest age of starting an independent life (leaving the parental home), averaging 19 for women and 20 for men, the eighties generation postpone their separation from parents to an average of 20.5 years, and their life course patterns are even less standard than their predecessors'. 

Delayed Decisions

The birth of the first child is just one of the growing-up events, alongside education, self-actualisation and career. With different spheres of life competing for their time and resources, young adults have to make choices. 

'Choices today are increasingly made in favour of things which bring more benefits and come with fewer costs', the researcher comments. 'Therefore, decisions associated with long-term commitment such as official marriage and childbirth are often postponed'. 

According to Mitrofanova, in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s generations, 40% to 60% of men and 70% of women had their first child by the age of 25 (Fig. 2, Time to Become Adult). In the 1980s generation, only 30% of men and 65% of women have children by this age.

Having calculated the chances of having their first child early (starting at the onset of one’s reproductive age at 15) (Fig. 1, Time of First Child), Mitrofanova found them to be the lowest for the youngest men. 

The age of first fatherhood dropped sharply in the 1970s generation of men and further decreased among those born in the 1980s, meaning that they tend to postpone becoming fathers.

These changes are observed mainly in well-educated men living in big cities, while women of the same age generally follow the childbearing trends of earlier generations. Mitrofanova predicts, however, that the next generation of women born in the 1990s may tend towards postponing childbirth just like the 1980s generation of men (i.e. their potential spouses).

Competing Demands for Women's Time

Mitrofanova also studied the patterns of growing-up events in different cohorts (Fig. 2, Time to Become Adult). 

'In older generations, different events followed a predictable pattern and rarely overlapped, as opposed to members of younger generations, especially women', says the researcher.  In the latter case, different 'storylines' get mixed and often arranged in a random manner.

'For young men, socioeconomic events and getting a partner go together, followed much later by official marriage and fathering a child', according to Mitrofanova. 'But for their female peers, both socioeconomic and demographic events seem to have priority all at once'.

Facing an array of priorities competing for their time, women work hard to combine family and career, as evidenced by the overlapping of curves on the graphs. 

Broken down by the female respondents' socioeconomic status, these trends are easier to interpret: more educated women tend to have a career first and postpone childbirth, while their less educated peers tend to have children relatively early in life and, according to Mitrofanova, 'either do not pursue an education or employment or postpone them until later'.

For the generations born and raised during the Soviet era, childbearing usually followed socioeconomic events but was not the final step in their transition to maturity, since many people, especially women, went back to college to finish their studies after the birth of their first child. In younger cohorts, childbirth tends to be the final stage in the process of becoming an adult, a stage one has to 'grow into in terms of financial stability and psychological readiness'. The interval between entering one's first union and having one’s first child has increased from about one year for Soviet-era generations of men to two years for young men today.

A comparison between the 2010 national census data and more recent statistics reveals that since 1995, the maternal age at first birth has consistently increased. In 2011, the average age of first birth was, according to various estimates, between 24.9 and 25.5 years. 

In 2016, according to HSE demographers, 'the average age of motherhood in Russia was 28.42 years, including 25.63 at first birth and 29.63 and 32.15 at second and third births, respectively'.

Motherhood Upgrade

The second demographic transition is a concept often used to explain changes in women's biographies. It involves modernisation of demographic behaviour

 sexual, matrimonial and reproductive behaviours are separated; 
 marriage and childbirth are postponed, as is the case in many Western countries; 
 partnerships grow in popularity as opposed to official marriage; 
 out-of-wedlock births are on the rise, with births in official marriage on a downward trend. 

All of this fits the global context. In many countries, the traditional family with early marriage, many children and rigid gender roles of the man as the breadwinner and head of the family and the woman as the mother, wife and homemaker, has become a thing of the past. Similarly, marriages in Russia tend to occur at a later age, often following cohabitation and an extensive search for self-fulfillment. As a result, women tend to have fewer children later in life. This makes it easier for women to find self-actualisation outside of the home. 

The second demographic transition has also changed some other characteristics of childbirth, with parenting, as well as the number of children in the family, becoming more of a rational choice

Smaller families due to lower birth rates is the current trend in many countries around the world. Various factors are at play here, from better medicine and contraception to a change in values with implications for the family and lifestyle.

Why People Choose Fewer Births

Research reveals that throughout history, despite high fertility rates, just two offspring of most couples survived to adulthood to replace their parents. Since almost all children survive today, it is sufficient for couples to have two children to maintain the replacement level, 'instead of trying to bear as many as possible not knowing how many would be taken by death, as used to be the case in the past', notes Anatoly Vishnevsky. Thus, women now have more time and energy 'to spend on other things'. 

Some 60 years ago in the USSR, the total fertility rate (TFR) measuring the average number of births per woman stood at about two (having dropped from seven in the early 20th century), which was one of the lowest birth rates among 40 developed countries.

In 1980s, fertility support measures helped raise the TFR to 2.23 children per woman in 1987. However, the political and  economic crises of the 1990s, as well as a relatively small cohort entering the reproductive age led the the TFR to drop once again to 1.16 in 1999.

New pronatalist measures, such as maternal capital and others introduced in 2007, combined with the  numerous '1980s baby boom' generation becoming parents, increased Russia's TFR to 1.76 in 2016. According to the UN 2019 projections, this indicator will remain at about 1.8 until the end of this century.

However, financial incentives, according to some researchers, are usually short-lived and not always effective. Personal priorities such as having a career, family relations such as partner trust, and adverse environmental factors such as not having a home of one's own or low availability of kindergartens and childcare services, among others, can easily outweigh the effect of pronatalist policies encouraging people to have more children more often.

New Norms

Women's emancipation leads to postponed births. High levels of education and income, an interest in having a career and in finding fulfilment outside of the family have caused young women to postpone motherhood. The attainment of a range of other goals such as earning a degree, finding employment and gaining financial independence before starting a family takes time, causing the average woman to have fewer children before the end of her reproductive years (estimated at 49).

The unwritten rules of family life in Russia have been substantially liberalised and rationalised, with family planning becoming widespread.

'Based on social norms in the USSR, it was assumed that once a person got married, they should soon have a child, and if a child was born to an unwed couple, they were under pressure to “cover it up” with marriage', Mitrofanova explains. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, these rules began to soften and eventually died off. Effective contraception became available, making fertility control much easier.

Society's higher expectations of parents today force couples to take a more careful and balanced approach to having children. Parenting – such as intensive mothering and involved fatherhood – has effectively become a full-time occupation with a specific set of skills and competences. In addition to this, raising a child today requires extensive investment of time and finance as well as psychological preparedness. 

For many people, the above factors turn childbirth into a 'postponed project' and maturity into an incomplete, although attempted, endeavour.


Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, February 29, 2020