Russia’s Recent Demographic Improvements Were Not Foreseen By The Experts

Whenever I write about the recent improvements in Russian demography, someone will inevitably respond by saying that these changes are ultimately meaningless because they are small in scale, temporary in nature, and were easily foreseen by experts in the field. If this is true, if demographers really did uniformly predict that Russia would experience a brief spell of natural population stability before slumping back into crisis, it would cast a rather critical light on most of my output.

The idea that experts easily predicted the recent improvements, however, is simply not true. And you don’t have to take my word for it. Go and look at the UN-produced national human development report, and, in particular, look at the forecasts on page 21. As you can clearly see from the report, as recently as 5 years ago most experts predicted that Russia would continue to naturally depopulate by around 500,000 people a year and that this decline would then rapidly accelerate in the period after 2015.

The following chart shows (in red) Russia’s actual natural population change as well as projections that were made by the UN (yellow), the Higher School of Economics (green), and Rosstat (blue).

The projections said that, as of 2013, 1) Russia’s population would be decreasing by more than 500,000 a year and 2) that this decrease would be accelerating. In reality, Russia is on pace to record a small natural increase in 2013 after recording a small natural decrease (of roughly 5,000) in 2012. If the projections in the above chart had been accurate, Russia’s population today would be about 2,500,000 people smaller than it is in reality.

The point isn’t to laugh at the demographers because the sorts of projections they make are incredibly complicated and are often influenced by variables (like future patterns of fertility or future patterns of alcohol consumption) that are impossible to predict. They made the best guesses they could given the information they had available, and I can’t see how anyone could have done a better job.

The only point I tam trying to make is that, purely as a factual matter, Russia’s demographic trajectory over the past several years has substantially outperformed even the most optimistic and rosy projections. Does this mean that Russia will necessarily continue to do so? No. But it does mean we don’t need to imagine a situation in which Russia beats all of the population forecasts, because that has already happened. Just a few years ago pretty much everyone expected that, in 2013, Russia’s population would be less than 141 million and shrinking. In fact, it’s 143.3 million and growing. That matters.

At some point in the next several years structural factors will push Russia’s population back into natural decline. When the tiny cohort born during the 1990′s fully enters reproductive age the number of births will go down: there’s simply no avoiding that unless Russia experiences a historically unprecedented fertility explosion. But as I hope the above graph makes clear a small delay in when this decline occurs, or a change in its magnitude, can have an enormous cumulative impact on Russia’s population. It also shows how important it is to constantly re-incorporate new data and observations, because even the best forecasts can age very quickly.


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