Saturday, January 12, 2019

Fewer Russian Women Now having Fewer Children, A Double Whammy for Russia’s Demographic Future

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 11 – Russian officials in the last few years have comforted themselves with the thought that recent declines in the number of newborns reflects a falloff in the number of women in prime child-bearing age groups, an echo of the 1990s and earlier demographic disasters going back to World War II.

            But new figures show that the decline in the number of births reflects not just a reduction in the number of women in their 20s and 30s but also a fall of their fertility rate, the number of children per woman over a lifetime. That means that the fewer women in the cohort will each have fewer children on average, pushing down the figures for two reasons not one.

            And it also means, if this trend in Russia continues, that the number of births will not rise nearly as far as some Russian officials suggest when the size of the cohort of women of prime child bearing age begins to recover in a decade or so, a pattern that suggests that the Russian population by mid-century will be closer to the low predictions than to the higher ones.

            These trends are discussed in detail by journalist Yevgeny Chernyshov of the Nakanune news agency in an article that highlights not only these factors but the failure of the Russian government to address them adequately and some of the consequences that failure will have for the future of Russia (

            In 2018, he notes, the number of newborns fell approximately five percent from the year before.  Sixty percent of that decline can be accounted for by a reduction in the number of women in prime child-bearing age groups, but 40 percent by a decline in the number of children per woman per lifetime.

            For Russia’s population to reproduce itself, the number of children per woman per lifetime needs to be approximately 2.1. That figure in Russia is now at 1.6 and falling – or only 75 percent of the figure needed for demographic stability.  In the absence of massive in-migration, Russia’s population will continue to fall – and ever more rapidly.

            According to Chernyshov, the reproduction of the population is “its restoration through births.” That depends on four factors: reproductive losses, reproductive potential, reproductive behavior and reproductive health.  He then considers each of these in turn.

                Reproductive losses are mortality among mothers and infants. Russian figures in this regard are now about as low as other countries; and consequently, there is relatively little room for any significant improvement here, the journalist says. 

            Reproductive potential is the number of women in prime child-bearing age groups.  The authorities like to talk about this because it is something they can’t control and thus can’t be blamed for not addressing.  But experts say that this contributes only about 20 percent to changes in the number of children, not the nearly 100 percent Moscow officials suggest.

            The third and fourth factors, reproductive behavior and reproductive health, are closely connected.  The first has to do with decisions women make about having children; the second about their health which may preclude their giving birth or make giving birth more difficult, as for example, by requiring Caesarian sections.

            Because the period between the onset of sexual experience and time of marriage is now “about ten years” in Russia, due to the first falling and the second rising, many women contract diseases from one or multiple sexual partners which make giving birth more difficult or even impossible, Chernyshov says. Experts say 77 percent of these women are ill way or another.

            One measure of this is the number of Caesarian sections. Thirty years ago, only about one Russian woman in ten had one; now, nearly one in three does. That is why the government devotes so much attention to perinatal centers which are in the first instance a high technology response to this underlying social trend.

            But these factors are less important than decisions by women on having children or not, and those decisions reflect both their own needs and their expectations for what any children they bring into the world will face. If conditions are difficult for them and if job prospects for the children are bad, then they will have fewer children.  And that is what is happening.

            What is especially unfortunate, demographers say, is that low expectations for the future workplace drive down birthrates which in turn drive down economic development, in a vicious circle that the authorities think they can address by offering money to women to have children but do not address the bigger problem because it would require them to reorient the country.

            In 2019, Chernyshov says, Russian women are likely to give birth to 1.6 million children, while 1.9 million Russians will die as a result of the aging of the population and other factors. That means that without immigration, the Russian population will decline something on the order of 300,000 this year alone.

            This year will mark something else: the exit from the prime child-bearing cohort of women born in the 1980s – and with their departure, the Nakanune journalist says, will go any prospects for demographic recovery unless and until the Russian government addresses not the symptoms but the underlying causes of demographic decline.

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