As I have written in prior posts, Russian demographics continues to improve as it has throughout the Putin era (Russian Demographics in 2019).
Life expectancy is going up very rapidly, constituting a new record of 73.6 years as of the first eight months of this year. Deaths from external causes continue to plummet, including homicide rates, which will probably fall below American levels this year for the first time since the late 1980s. Deaths from external causes, and abortion rates, also continue to converge to “normality”.
But the one big exception in this otherwise positive picture is fertility rates, which have plummeted from a post-Soviet high of 1.78 children per woman in 2015 to 1.58 in 2018, and are set to drop below 1.50 this year.
Now in fairness, this is a worldwide trend, which demographics blogger Cicerone has chronicled on Twitter. Its causes are unclear. Even so, the fertility retreat in the post-Soviet world has been particularly abrupt, having already annulled about half the recovery relative to the post-Soviet nadir in Russia and Belarus (and almost completely so in the Ukraine).
If this continues, then Russia’s future population trends will hew to my (modified) “Low” prediction from 2008, which sees a stagnation/slight decline in Russia’s population through to 2050.
That said, I will continue to maintain that this is a temporary reversal, at least in Russia’s case, on the basis of two pieces of evidence.
1. Russia’s fertility preferences remain relatively high compared to other European countries.
A year ago, I wrote a history of Russian fertility preferences. I have now become aware that the Levada Center has also been carrying out polls on this topic, and the latest data have desired Russian fertility creeping up to late Soviet era highs (2.63 children per woman as of October 2019). This is in sync with a 2018 poll from VCIOM that suggested Russians desired 2.57 children per woman, up from 2.32 children in 2014 according to data from the same polling outfit.
Here is the updated dataset of all the polls on Russian fertility preferences that I have gathered to date (“W” refers to women only).
|n||M/W||Source||Year||Real TFR||Expected TFR||Ideal TFR|
And here is that table in graphical format:
(1) There is a strong r=0.82 correlation between actual fertility rates and expected fertility rates in any one year, with the former typically being around 0.2 children lower. Surveys in the past decade have typically placed expected Russian fertility at 1.8-1.9 children per woman, so we shouldn’t expect it to fall much below 1.6 children per woman for long.
(2) There is a moderate r=0.51 correlation between actual fertility rates and ideal or desired fertility rates in any one year, and the gap between them is much larger. That said, there is still a clearly visible pattern. The gap tends to hover at around 0.7 children (which is not dissimilar to most European countries). After having remained at ~2.7 children per woman during the late Soviet era, when the fertility rate was near replacement level rates, it collapsed to ~2.1 children per woman by the late 1990s. However, it subsequently crept back up to ~2.4 children per woman, and now seems to be approaching late Soviet era rates of 2.6 children again. This suggests that a recovery to at least 1.8 children per woman can be reasonably expected.
This is very good relative to most other Western countries. The only major West European countries with similar rates, at least in the early 2000s, were Ireland (2.61) and France (2.54), which enjoyed TFRs of ~1.9 children per woman during that same period. This also describes the US, which had a TFR of ~2.0 children per woman back around 1990 when it last had an ideal fertility rate of ~2.6 children per woman (as of 2012, this was down to 2.37 children).
2. The average birth sequence statistics suggest that there is currently a strong trend towards birth postponement.
An even more accurate measure of long-term fertility is the average birth sequence (средняя очередность рождения, henceforth ABS), which gives for any one year the mean order of all newborn children (for instance, if women in a previously entirely childless country all decided to give birth in a given year for some reason, the TFR would leap up to a very high level but the ABS would equal exactly one). Looking at these different fertility patterns, it emerges that in the 1980’s, Soviet fertility was not as high as implied by the TFR – not was the 1990’s collapse as apocalyptic as some would have it. Or in other words, many gave birth in the 1980’s because of the social benefits of perestroika and many postponed it in the 1990’s because of the economic crises. The effect on deeper generational fertility patterns was much more modest – a drop of just 0.2 children.
In the long-term, the TFR will, on average, approximate to the ABS, after subtracting the percentage of women who don’t have any kids at all. This is a problem in places like Germany, where those who do have children have quite a few, but a substantial proportion of women don’t have any at all. And this is probably going to become more and more prevalent in the West in line with the promotion of the environmentalist “childfree” ideology. However, this is not a big issue for Russia, where “childfree” ideology is not prevalent and the female childlessness rate is well below 10%.
The following table (h/t stranger233) displays Russia’s ABS from 1980-2018.
As we can see, the Russian ABS was at 1.8 children per woman during the 1980s, declined to 1.6 children per woman during the 1990-2000s, but recovered to 1.8 children by 2014 and has since risen to almost 2.0 children. The discrepancy between this figure and Russia’s TFR of 1.5 children per woman means that there is currently a strong trend towards postponement of births. This is logical, since the average age at first childbirth in Russia is still much lower than in Western Europe – about 25.5 years, versus 31 years in Italy and Switzerland, which have some of the oldest ages at first childbirth. It is probably not ideal for it to go higher, since it limits ultimate possible fertility, and pregnancy becomes more difficult and dangerous after 35 years. But it is a worldwide trend and likely inevitable.
Indeed, it may well even go higher for some time, as it did during the late Soviet era, e.g. when the current trend of birth postponement halts or reverses and the backlog of postponed births gets balanced (as happened in the 1980s, see right). Conveniently, this should happen during the 2020s and 2030s, when the percentage of Russian women of childbearing age will reach a temporary nadir (due to the fertility collapse in the 1990s).
Now this is not absolutely guaranteed to happen, e.g. if said birth postponements turn out to be terminal. But historically, more than 90% of Russian women have ended up giving birth, and the latest Levada poll suggests there’s no sociological shift away from that pattern; only 1% of women say childfree is ideal, while only 8% say they don’t expect to have any children. This figure is perfectly in line with longstanding trends.
Consequently, I assess that Russia’s long-term TFR is likely to remain at no less than 1.75 children, which coupled with positive life expectancy and immigration (300,000 yearly) trends should see Russia’s population – adjusting for any territorial changes – eking out an absolute increase between 2010 and 2050.