A Nation of Widows and Maidens - By Victor Perevedentsev

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By Victor Perevedentsev
September 2006

Great changes in family and love. How the GULAG affected the ratio of the sexes. Who finds it harder to meet the other half

Nowadays sexual relations start at a noticeably younger age but people first marry later, and the family is less stable… Specialists know all this from the current demographic statistics. General public, too, has perceived these changes from common observation.

But what does the 2002 census tell us about this?

The growth of civic consciousness and marriage ratings

The figure for those married includes what is called common law marriages.

There are many of them, and their number is growing fast.

We can see that the number of married people has shrunk greatly, while the figures for the never married, as well as of the divorced and separated have increased greatly. The separated people are husbands and wives who have not formalized the breakup of their marriage.

Note the large number of widows though there is only a small number of widowers. At the time of the 1989 census there were still many women whose husbands had died during WWII. By 2002, most of them had passed away. However, there was a leap in the number of widows in the age groups that had not been affected by that war. This was due to the drastic difference in mortality rates of males and females the same age. For instance, for every 1,000 women aged 60--65 there were 324 widows and only 86 widowers among the respective number of men belonging to the same age. Widowed men, particularly young ones, are in high demand and snatched right up on the marriage market. In 2002, there were only three widowers out of 1,000 men 30 to 35 years old, while their female coevals numbered 22 widows per 1,000. The respective figures for men and women 35 to 40 years old were 6 and 37, and for men and women 40 to 45 years old – 11 and 56. It can be seen from the table below that widowers have a much better chance of finding a new marriage partner than widows.

The difference in the numbers of divorced or separated men and women is just as great. The figures should be equal. But the divorce rate for men 30 to 35 years old is 107 per 1,000, while for women that age it is 152 per 1,000. Here, again, it is a matter of a difference in the possibilities to remarry.

There are three main reasons for these differences: the numeral preponderance of the female population, “demographic waves” and men’s marrying at a later age.

Choosy bachelors

A preponderance of women in the population is traditional for Russia. An “excess” of women appeared for the first time as a result of WWI and the Civil War. According to the 1926 census, Russia (within its current borders) had 1,108 women for every 1,000 men.

Since the birth rate was high in the 1920s and 30s, the female numerical preponderance should have disappeared quite fast. However, it had actually increased by the time of the 1939 census. That was, undoubtedly, a consequence of the Great Terror in the 1930s. For every 1,000 men there were 1,121 women. WWII made the women’s preponderance even greater. Even in 1959 the census revealed that the ratio of women to men was 1,242 to 1,000. The half century after the war the preponderance was going down, though very slowly. By 1995 it had dropped to 129 to 1,000, that is, practically to the pre-war level. But then it took to rising again and reached 147 to 1,000 in 2002. This increase in the disproportions of the sexes was a consequence of the “supermortality” of men (the greater mortality rates of men in the same age group).

This big disproportion between the sexes is the main reason why the share of married women in Russia’s population is much below the share of married men (526 and 626 per thousand, according to the latest census).

Demographic waves are alternations of numerous and non-numerous generations. One can get an idea of the size of the fluctuations from these figures: in 1960 2.8 million children were born in Russia, in 1968 there were 1.8 million births, in 1987 – 2.5 million, and only 1.2 million in 1999.

When the 16-25 age group is a numerous generation (like it happened in 2002) the proportion of married people shrinks because younger men of marriageable age are less likely to start families.

The first fact to note is that in the 14 years between the censuses the proportion of the married people, both men and women, dropped in every age group, particularly the young ones.

The share of married women over 45 goes down with every passing year, while the proportion of married men steadily increases up to the age of 60.

The share of “free” (non-married) women increases the older women get, while that of bachelors goes down. Meanwhile the quantitative relations between the number of marriageable men and marriageable women of the same age group change even faster because there are less men than women in the older age groups (because of men’s supermortality and the tremendous difference in the average life expectancy between the sexes).

Excepting at the younger ages, the “marriage market” has a huge shortage of marriageable men, women’s options are smaller and men’s are greater.

Lawmakers’ oversight

Family life is affected by the disproportion on the marriage market. Inevitably women have to put up with much undesirable behaviour of their mates.

The general birth-rate level is determined by young women. Now four out of five children are born by mothers under 30. Demographically, therefore, the marriage status of these young women is particularly important. The number of married women has dropped very low in the 20 to 25 age group, the one with the highest birth rate. This is the principal direct cause of the plunge in the birth rate in the 1990s that led to a rapid dying out of Russia’s population. For five years in a row now, about a million people more have been dying in the country than are born.

From this it follows unequivocally that in the demographic policy to improve the birth rate, the accent should be put on increasing marriageability, on incentives to marry earlier. The current situation being what it is, one can hardly see the fact that a quarter of men between 35 and 40 do not have wives as normal. A majority of women under 25 and a third between ages 25 and 30 have no husbands (see the table). This is what our lawmakers should look into instead of talking about the need to ban abortions.

In a sense we have been living so far on the demographic achievements of the New Economic Policy, or NEP (1921-35). There was a population explosion in the country at the time. The numerous generation of the NEP produced the following numerous generation in the 1950s, and the latter gave birth to the last numerous generation of the 1980s that is entering adulthood, starting families and bearing children. But there will not be another numerous generation. The birth rate will go up, of course, due to the increase in number of potential young parents when the most numerous age group of 15 to 20 year olds (according to the 2002 census) enters the child-bearing age: it numbered 12.8 million (2.2 million more than the age group of 25 to 30).

However, should the current birth rate persist, there will inevitably be a plunge in the number of births because the 5 to-10 age group in the census (currently the 7 to 12 year olds) is almost two times smaller than the 15 to 20 year-old age group (6.9 million against 12.8 million), and the following age group is even smaller.

When these scarce children become parents the numerous generation born in the first 15 years after WWII will reach retirement age (with a stepped up mortality). If by that time the birth rate does not improve and the death rate does not go down, Russia’s natural population loss will rise from nearly a million a year as it has been for the last five years to about one and a half million.

Meanwhile the nation has no articulate policy on the birth rate. In its stead we have a basically faulty policy on immigration. Immigration into Russia has practically ceased.

There has not been, is not, …nor will be?

Russia has two principal problems: an economic and a demographic one. They are closely interwoven. But the demographic problem is mythologized to the limit. The society knows little of the census results and is not adequately informed about the unavoidable consequences of the past demographic development. One such consequence is the massive and unavoidable loss of manpower in the near future. At the moment, the large generation of the last “perestroika” demographic upsurge is joining the workforce (grandchildren of the “NEP generation”) while the scarce born in the war time generation is reaching retirement age for men. The number of people who are of working age is increasing, while the population is shrinking overall. According to 2002 census, the share of people of all work ages is 61 percent of all the population. Such a figure has never been recorded before nor will it ever be possible again in future. Soon the working age population will go down one million in a year. The scarce children born in the last decade of the past century will reach the working age, while the numerous old post-war born people will be leaving the labour force.

Experts have no doubts that this, as well as the aging of the working generation will have a powerful negative effect on the nation’s economic development, its competitiveness and position in the world.

An effective demographic policy is vital to this country. But we do not have one now nor will we have with the current system of priorities of the leadership.