Fertility, marriage, childbearing
“The formerly socialist countries were characterized by a distinct pattern of fertility and family formation: marriage and childbearing took place at relatively young ages (compared with Western Europe) and were near-universal”. Rates of childlessness were near the biological limit of about 5 per cent; in 1965-1989 the Soviet fertility rate had stabilized at about the replacement level of fertility of 2.1 children per woman. Abortion rates were high.
In contrast, “Virtually every country in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union [FSU] experienced a steep decline in fertility beginning in the late 1980s or early 1990s”, as illustrated in Figure 1. Bulgaria and Ukraine fell below the lowest fertility level ever recorded in a European country during peacetime. The abortion rate actually fell (in Russia it plummeted from over 100 per 1000 women aged 15-49 in 1990 to 50 in 2000; in the early 1990s Poland introduced a near-ban on abortion). The decline in birth-rates was due to contraceptives being better and more readily available and to the rapid increase in the financial cost of abortion.
There was a rapid shift towards later (first) childbearing throughout Eastern Europe (see Figure 2); former Soviet republics continued early and near universal first births, with the postponement of second and higher-order births, but are generally moving in the same direction.
Figure 1. Total Fertility Rate. Selected Countries.
The connection between this trend and the post-socialist transition process is confirmed by these changes being slower in the transition laggards like Belarus. Age at first marriage has also increased, approaching that of Western Europe (Figure 3).
“The share of extramarital birth increased across the region beginning in the early-to-mid-1990s; the highest rate is in Estonia (nearly 60% of all births) which rivals the out-of-wedlock birth rates of Scandinavian countries.” In Russia – and probably elsewhere – the increase in extra-marital births reflects to a large extent a shift from registered marriage to cohabitation.
Figure 3. Age at first marriage, women, 1970-2007
A most disturbing development is the “striking upward trend in the sex ratio [of males to females] of children age 0 to 4 in all three Caucasian republics”: Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, where it has risen above the biological norm of 1.05, matching the ratios prevailing in India and China. This may reflect selective abortion, due to wider availability of sex detection before birth, and/or an actual or perceived deterioration in the condition of women.
Income, Education, Uncertainty
Traditional economic theory (exemplified by Gary Becker’s A Treatise on the Family, 1981) predicts an inverse relationship between income and fertility: while children are a ‘normal good’ (“when income increases couples desire more children”), the time-intensive nature of their rearing represents a significant opportunity cost, and its increase holds births down. Brainerd notes that “women’s relative wages have increased on many East European countries” after the transition, thus validating this theory. The trouble is that, for all or most of the ‘nineties throughout the area income per head actually fell, by more than could have been compensated for women by the rise in their relative wages. Thus, pace Becker, the impact of income on fertility that he predicts should have had the opposite sign.
A related explanation offered by Brainerd is “the increase in the [rate of] return to education which has occurred across nearly all transition countries, in turn inducing large increase in tertiary enrollment rates”. Empirical studies “indicate a negative relationship between education levels and the timing of the first birth, and … the strength of this education effect has increased significantly since the start of transition. Women with more education are also more likely to be childless than women with less education”.
But there is a much more convincing argument. “In the context of the transition countries … it seems likely that the uncertainty surrounding the change from a socialist system to a capitalist one would influence a couple’s decision to have children”. Investment theory predicts that “for investment decisions which are irreversible (e.g. children) and which can be postponed, there is an option value in waiting to make the investment”. The role of economic uncertainty is confirmed by a number of empirical studies (showing, for instance, the impact of unemployment uncertainty especially for women on the probability of childbirth in Germany 1992-2002).
There are additional factors: “One of these is the decrease in the number of state-supported nurseries and pre-school facilities and the near-disappearance of daycare facilities provided at enterprises.” Another “simply the decrease in the number of middle-aged men” due to the dramatic increase in mortality rates among men aged 25 - 54 in the 1990s (discussed below); “if women are reluctant to raise a child as a single mother, this too would be expected to account for at least part of the decline in fertility over the period.”
On lower fertility rates, later marriages and childbearing, high and rising extra-marital births, transition countries have come to look more and more like Western Europe.
Mortality trends diverged sharply in the FSU and in Eastern Europe. After a rise in life expectancy in the late 1980s, undoubtedly due to Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign, “between 1990 and 1994 the death rate among working age men in Russia increased by 70 percent, from 759.2 to 1323.7 deaths per 100,000 population. Male life expectancy at birth fell from 63.7 years to 57.4 years during that period, while female life expectancy at birth fell from 74.3 years to 71.1 years. A similar increase in mortality rates occurred in many other countries of the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s, in particular in Belarus, Ukraine, and the three Baltic countries.“ Some of these declines were reversed in the late 1990s but their size and large and erratic swings are unprecedented in European countries in peace time and the absence of famines or epidemics.
These mortality trends coincided with the process of transition to a market economy, but the same process was accompanied by opposite trends in Eastern Europe, where “mortality rates fell and life expectancy rose throughout the region”, in spite of similar – though milder and less protracted – trends in GDP losses and unemployment. In particular, “The unprecedented increase in cardiovascular mortality in the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s was nearly matched by an unprecedented decrease in cardiovascular mortality in Eastern Europe.” The difference between the two groups is summarized in Figures 5 and 6.
Figure 5. Male life expectancy at birth. Selected FSU countries
Figure 6. Male life expectancy at birth. Eastern Europe
In the 1990s infant and child mortality declined almost everywhere in the region; the traditionally vulnerable groups, children and the aged, avoided significantly higher mortality during the transition. In the FSU the mortality crisis affected primarily middle-aged men. “In Estonia and Russia (and many other former Soviet countries), the increase in death rates for men age 25 to 54 between 1989 and 1994 was astonishing. In Estonia, for example, the death rate for men aged 40 to 44 increased from 5.93 deaths per 1,000 men in this age group in 1989 to 13.19 deaths per 1,000 in 1994, an increase of 122 percent. Over the entire transition period …, the increase in death rates among middle-aged men remained high in Russia, but had begun to decline in Estonia and the other Baltic republics.” An initial deterioration in life expectancy at birth occurred at the very beginning of the transition in other countries, especially Hungary, but the “pattern of large declines in mortality rates across most age groups by 2007 is similar for all East European countries for which data are available, including the Czech Republic, Poland and Romania”.
The mortality crisis among middle-aged men in the FSU republics was primarily caused by a tremendous increase in deaths due to circulatory diseases (heart disease and strokes; also rising in Bulgaria and Romania in 1989-94) and due to external causes (including suicides and homicides). After the mid-nineties these death rates declined but remained at least as high as before the transition. In the other East European countries, deaths due to circulatory diseases for men in the age-group 25-54 declined substantially between 1989 and 2007; among other things, because of improved diet and better medical care. “… the speed and magnitude of the [mortality] decline in Eastern Europe may be unprecedented”.
“Did Russians drink themselves to death?”
“Most analysts believe that alcohol consumption is one of the major causes of the large swings in mortality in the western former Soviet Union in the 1990s,” together with stress and possibly diet as contributory factors. Stress has been associated with unemployment, increase in inequality, migration and divorce. Artificially low prices for food, especially meat and fats, and scarcity of fruits and vegetables, made for a bad diet. Otherwise, other risk factors – smoking, hypertension and high cholesterol levels – in the FSU were lower than in western countries and mildly improving over the 1990s. Individual alcohol consumption is virtually impossible to estimate; probably two factors raised the impact of alcohol, namely binge drinking (leading to increased arrhythmias and heart attacks) and the consumption of “surrogate” alcohol. Surrogates, all untaxed and cheaper than vodka in alcoholic content, include homemade alcohol (samogon), and “non-beverage” alcohol, such as after-shave, anti-freeze and lighter fluid, all characterized by high content of ethanol and other toxic ingredients ”… Autopsy studies and surrogate alcohol studies provide persuasive evidence that alcohol consumption played an even more important role than previously thought in the increase in deaths due to both cardiovascular and external causes in Russia”.
Brainerd stresses that there remain unanswered questions. “Does alcohol consumption also explain the large swings in mortality in the other countries of the former Soviet Union besides Russia? … Why did drinking become so lethal in the 1990s? … Did alcohol consumption increase a great deal, or the frequency of binge drinking?” We know for certain that the price of food relative to the price of alcohol rose dramatically in the early years of transition in Russia, by a factor of three. The problem is that we do not know the price and income elasticity of demand for alcohol, nor the cross elasticity of demand for alcohol and its surrogates.
The arithmetic of falling fertility, plus mortality rising above fertility, leads inexorably to a falling population, and indeed in the last two decades there were significant population decreases in most FSU countries. In Russia the population fell from 147 million in 1989 to 142 million by 2008. The loss, of 3.4 per cent, is much more dramatic if one excludes the substantial migration inflows of over 6 million (net) immigrants into Russia, between 1989 and 2008 – a fall of 11 million in the native Russian population. Table 7 shows that the Russian population decline is much smaller than that of other FSU countries: 20 percent in Moldova and Georgia, nearly 15 percent in Estonia and Latvia, 4 to 10 percent in Kazakhstan, Armenia, Lithuania and Ukraine. Similar declines occurred in Bulgaria and Romania. In the same period populations grew in the Central Asian republics (except Kazakhstan), Azerbaijan and Hungary.
Table 7. Population change 1989-2008
“Population declines are likely to continue in many countries due to the much smaller cohorts of women entering their childbearing years” – a factor which is nearly impossible to offset by the hypothetical increase in fertility that might occur thanks to Putin’s fertility ‘bonus’. Increasing life expectancy and higher immigration may make a more significant contribution to reduce population decline. But it is no accident that Goskomstat forecasts the Russian population to decrease from 142 million in 2008 to 137.5 million in 2025.
Elizabeth Brainard sees an immediate benefit from population decline, namely the “Solow effect” of raising the average capital/labour ratio and therefore, presumably, labour productivity. This effect is unlikely to materialize: existing capital equipment almost invariably embodies a technique designed for employing a given amount of labour per machine. The scope of ex-post substitutability between capital and labour is bound to be much lower than that ex-ante. Higher capital per man and higher productivity may happen only as a result of new accumulation, but this takes time. It may take twenty years for the higher investment per man (and the higher productivity of labour associated to it) to be diffused throughout the economy. In the meantime, lower capital utilization is more likely to occur than higher labour productivity on old equipment – while in the longer run the population ageing effect of demographic decline will still be operational. Demographic decline also leads to some destruction of human capital. Therefore population decline is bad for economic growth on all counts, in the short as in the medium and the long term.
Elizabeth Brainerd’s riveting study is an eye-opener. It reveals how much our lives are influenced by the policies and institutions of the economic system in which we live, and how rapidly we can adapt to the transition from one system to another. It is frightening to see how much our individual decisions, literally on matters of life and death, are governed by economic incentives. When the state takes care of people from cradle to grave, there are simply more cradles but there may be a faster route to graves.