OK. This is interesting but it’s pretty wrong.

The idea that recessions have a negative impact on population movements is, by this point in time, broadly accepted, even here in the US. Census data clearly show that the “great recession,” exerted massive downward pressure on the birth rate, a decline which has substantially outlived the recession itself. Recent scholarly work by Angus Deaton and Anne Case (while not immune from controversy!) also suggests that deep-seated economic problems are increasingly wreaking havoc with the health of working class whites. Basically, even in rich democracies, big changes in the economic environment can have significant impact on birth and death rates.

  1. It’s Case and Deaton.
  2. Recessions do tend to depress fertility, but this is because people can (broadly) choose when to give birth, and can thus choose to delay childbearing when they find conditions unfavorable. This is why the article linked above talks about a “baby bounce” – a few years after a recession, those people who want children, but delayed having them, get back to it. So, not wrong, but also not really a long-term problem.
  3. Recessions do not generally tend to increase mortality. I’m sorry, but there is no consensus that they do, because they don’t. The study by Case and Deaton is interesting, but it’s not about recessions. From the article linked: “…virtually all of the rise in mortality took place between 1999 and 2005: since then, death rates have been pretty flat for whites aged forty-five to fifty-four.”
  4. As for Russia, yeah, this recession sure is different from the 1990’s. Here are a few ways:
    1. It’s not accompanied by a total collapse of the political and economic system.
    2. Alcohol policy and drinking patterns are wildly different, and the country is not coming off of a multiyear sobriety campaign for which the necessary political will has evaporated, thus introducing a massive alcohol-related shock to mortality just as said political system collapses.
    3. The country’s primary care medical system, though still far from perfect, has undergone significant reforms that have improved standards of care and access.
    4. Russia has made great strides in controlling and treating cardiovascular disease, a leading cause of death both at older ages and for middle-aged drinkers.

There are certainly reasons to be concerned about the situation in Russia and suspicious that mortality will not continue to improve the way it has for the last twelve years. Among these are the recent cuts to the health care system and the incredibly low level of pensions, which leaves the increasingly aging population more and more vulnerable. But the country is not at risk of the kind of massive, unprecedented mortality swings that it saw in the 1990’s, and no one who knows anything should think that it is.

If you want to know more about Russian demography and you speak Russian, have a look at this absolutely stellar interview with the demographer Evgeni Andreev, featured in Meduza a couple of months ago. Here’s an excerpt, which I’ve translated. (See the original at Meduza – these two questions occur right next to each other, about halfway down the page.)

Now it is clear that Russia is entering a very difficult economic period. Is it possible to say for certain how this will affect demography?

The outlook is grim. I don’t presume to tell you how the process will continue. Obviously, the lives of pensioners are getting much worse – they have no income besides their pensions, and pensions are not likely be increased by much. But we must understand that the relationship between economics and demographics is complex and indirect. Demographic processes have great inertia.

In the popular imagination, it’s quite simple: when the economy gets worse, demographics get worse. Is this not true?

Far from it. I can say this: in the late 1980s we had a very high life expectancy – in Russia it was almost at 70, and at the same time, there were practically no groceries, everything was distributed by coupons. And in 1998, we again had a rather high life expectancy while the wages were not being paid and half the country was protesting just to get their salaries for the past year. Don’t assume that population dynamics can be easily manipulated. Demographic processes are stable, but that’s why an abrupt change of direction is very dangerous. If, for example, life expectancy begins to decline and falls for two or three years in a row, albeit slightly, it is always much more difficult to change direction again than to continue on the same path. I don’t presume to explain why this is so. But if people stop drinking, and then suddenly begin to drink again, then to get them to quit again is hard.