This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 12th (it came out in 2015), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Saturday, April 5, 2014

Russian Demographics: Whom to Believe?

I do not profess to have any insider knowledge about Russian demographics. At the same time, I do know where to go if I want that kind of information. So, I was very interested to dig into a debate on Russian demographics to which Duane Miller alerted me. Here's the deal. A few days ago an article appeared in Vanity Fair by Maureen Orth titled "The Numbers Vladimir Putin Doesn't Want You to See." This is a provocative headline and the story is a bit sensational, but the message is basically that Russia's demographics are not good. It has a relatively low life expectancy, especially for men, and a low fertility rate. Her information comes from respectable sources: the World Health Organization, in particular, and interviews with demographers Murray Feshbach and Nicholas Eberstadt, both of whom you'll find cited in my book. And she puts out some numbers that can be fact-checked against the WHO and United Nations Population Division databases:
Despite a recent slight uptick in births versus deaths, life expectancy now stands at 64 for males and 76 for women (137th and 100th in the world, respectively). According to the U.N.’s World Health Organization, the life expectancy for a 15-year-old boy in Haiti is three years higher than for a Russian boy the same age [YES, THAT IS WHAT THE WHO LIFE TABLES SHOW]. A drop in fertility by 50 percent between 1987 and 1999 [YES, THAT'S WHAT THE UN SHOWS] has resulted in a reduced number of women now at childbearing age, which is beginning to affect the country in a major way: Two thirds of all births in Russia take place among women between the ages of 20 and 29, and this population will decline from 13 million currently to 7 or 8 million in the coming years [YES, THIS IS CONSISTENT WITH UN DATA AND PROJECTIONS].
In response to this article was a piece in Forbes by Mark Adomanis titled "4 Things You Should Know About Russian Demography That Vanity Fair Won't Tell You". He says that his specialty is Russian economy and demography and he puts out a number of charts that don't exactly refute the Vanity Fair article, but rather point to a rosier picture. Fertility is increasing, life expectancy is increasing, and the sky is not falling in. These trends are also apparent in the WHO and UN Pop Division data, but my real complaint about the Adomanis article is that he does not cite a single source for his data. Others seemed to have complained about this, and yesterday he issued a revised story in which he draws on data from a Russian source (I clicked on the link, but it was all Greek to me, as they say), so I can't confirm what he is saying, but this is a much more reasoned argument:
I’m not clairvoyant and I won’t pretend to know exactly what Russia’s population will be ten years from now. If forced to guess I would have to say that it will be smaller than it is today. Much of the answer, though, hinges on what happens to the flow of workers out of Central Asia, and migration patterns are notoriously hard to predict. The point I’m making is not that “things in Russia will continue to get better forever” but merely that we need to rely on the most recent and accurate data. And the most recent and accurate data say that the general demographic picture in Russia is continuing to improve.
I do think he hit the nail on the head with the reference to "workers out of Central Asia." In all likelihood, were it not for this immigration from several of its former republics, Russia would be on the verge of depopulation. At the same time, without the remittances from those workers, several of these former republics would be in dire economic circumstances. According to data from the World Bank, remittances from emigrants (probably mostly in Russia) account for 48 percent of the country's GDP. The Kyrgyz Republic and Moldova are also very high on that list. This suggests to me that these workers are unlikely to go home anytime soon. What I do not know, however, is the gender composition of the immigrants. In particular, are there women of child-bearing age who can help make up for the small birth cohorts of Russian women currently moving into the reproductive ages? If you have answers, provide the source, please.

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