Russia Shares EU’s Population Decline — Worsened by Men’s Shortening Lifespan     Print
Tuesday, 21 July 2009

With Moscow bent on restoring some of Russia’s former international prominence, any longer-term Kremlin ambitions for the country are bound to be constrained by dire demographic trends.

Falling birthrates coupled with a declining lifespan for Russian men are reducing the population and distorting Russia’s age pyramid, according to a study by a leading specialist in Moscow. The researcher’s findings were summarized in an article in France’s Le Monde newspaper.

Russia, like most countries both in Eastern and Western Europe, has a low and declining birth rate. In 2007, the rate in Russia was 1.4 children per woman – a figure comparable to its European neighbors and one that is sharply lower than the 2.1 “replacement rate” needed to prevent a sharp fall in population over two decades. At current rates, the population of Russia (approximately 142 million) will fall by 11 million by 2025.

Russia’s problems with its falling birth rate are sharply aggravated by a simultaneous decline in life expectancy for Russian men. Compared to an average lifetime of 64 years in the 1960s, the life expectancy for Russian males has fallen to 61 years. (The comparable figure for males in the European Union is 74.) A principal cause of this early death rate is widespread alcoholism in Russia. The problem shows up in many statistics, including this one: male Russians are three times more likely to die than Russians of the same age who are in prison (where they get less access to alcohol), Le Monde reported. This trend in the population means that a significant percentage of Russian males die well before retirement age. In general, alcoholism and other health and social problems are also weakening the Russian workforce and military.

Demography is not always destiny for a nation. (Remember the wrong predictions in the 1980s about a looming crisis of over-population in developing nations and the Soviet Union). But the obvious fix for Russia’s current deficit of working-age men — importing foreign workers — is not an option for the Kremlin because of widespread antipathy among Russians to immigration — for example, Chinese in under-populated Siberia.

Problems of population growth (or rather the lack of it) also afflict EU countries, but on a much smaller scale. In Germany, the annual population loss is about 100,000 because death rates now exceed birth rates. In general, the declining European birthrate (the only exceptions are France and Ireland) has long-term negative economic implications, according to a report by Jonathan Grant and Stijn Hoorens of the RAND Europe research group. They cite a consensus among demographers and economists that “30 million Europeans of working age will ‘disappear’ by 2050.” At the same time, a growing proportion of the overall population will live much longer, increasing the strains on retirement systems and imposing economic burdens that will slow growth in the coming decades.

A detailed and insightful exploration of the subject of falling European birthrates (and the rising ones in the United States) was contained in a long article in the New York Times magazine.