Recession? Life expectancy is rising regardless
Russia’s economy is, pretty obviously, not doing very well. While growth in the first quarter of 2016 wasn’t quite as bad as initially forecast, thanks to a partial rebound in the price of oil and an attendant strengthening of the ruble, the overall situation is still rather grim. Even the upside projections have the Russian economy experiencing no growth in 2016, and the downside projections have output shrinking by as much as 2%. It might not be a “collapse” or a “tailspin,” but it’s a very painful period of negative growth, wage decline, and rising unemployment.
Despite some tentative signs of economic improvement and a continuation the usual bluster coming out of the government (“sanctions are meaningless” “import substitution is a success”) it seems that the Kremlin’s jitters over the economy are actually growing. Evidently, Putin was nervous enough about the economy to bring Alexei Kudrin, the well-regarded former minister of finance who had been sacked in a controversy about defense spending, back into a formal advisory role. Kudrin can’t fix everything on his own, but the simple fact that he was brought back suggests there is awareness, even in Putin’s inner circle, that something needs to change.
What relevance could these economic problems possibly have for demography? Well, in the not too distant past whenever Russia’s economy suffered there was a swift, and usually quite sharp, downturn of public health indicators. This was particularly true during and after the 1998 debt default, when, alongside a collapse in economic activity, Russian demographic indicators swiftly reached their post-Soviet nadir.
A wide range of explanations were offered as to why Russian health seemed to sensitive to economic performance. The most convincing of these explanations centered on changes in alcohol consumption (people tended to drink more when the economy was lousy) or changes in level of “psycho-social stress” (unemployed men were more likely to have heart attacks, strokes, etc.) but there was broad agreement among experts that this was the case.
And so, when the Russian economy started to shrink at the end of 2014, a lot of people expected that the recent demographic improvements, an increased birth rate and a substantially increased average life expectancy, were very quickly going to be reversed. Economic crisis, in other words, would lead to demographic crisis. Given Russian history, this was an entirely reasonable expectation.
But something funny happened this time around: Russian mortality indicators have actually improved noticeably since the onset of the recession. Between 2014 and 2015, average life expectancy increased by about half a year to 71.4. That might sound low (and it is) but it is a new all-time record. Russians have never lived as long as they do now.
Even more surprisingly, 2016 has been off to an even better start. Detailed life expectancy data aren’t yet available, and won’t be until early 2017, but from January through May the crude death rate was down by a full 5%. Given the steady aging of Russia’s population, this means that life expectancy has continued to increase, and at an even more rapid pace than it did last year. You could easily make the case that Russian public health isn’t just improving but that it is doing so at an accelerating pace.
It’s entirely possible that, if the current recession goes on long enough, the situation I’ve outlined above will change. Even in developed countries with much more generous safety nets and much better healthcare systems, economic downturns usually have some kind of recognizably negative impact on demography. I can’t see a good reason why Russia would indefinitely be an exception to this rule.
But if you expected that Russia’s recession was going to catapult it back into the “demographic hole” of the 1990′s you’ve been wrong. At least so far.