‘The pause in pregnancies because of COVID-19 might last for at least four-five months’

RANEPA expert Alla Makarentseva on how the coronavirus pandemic will influence natality in Russia

‘The pause in pregnancies because of COVID-19 might last for at least four-five months’
Photo: courtesy of Alla Makarentseva

“I can’t believe that 23% of childless couples will never want to have children. This number is obviously much higher than we can assume according to all our data. Perhaps this is the influence of the current coronavirus spring. But this issue needs further consideration,” thinks leading researcher and head of Demography and Migration in RANEPA’s Institute of Social Analysis Alla Makarentseva. In an interview with Realnoe Vremya, she talked about the recent demographic trends, Tatar mothers as well as having many children, childlessness and Russia’s childfree movement.

“The natality dynamics have been negative for four years already

Mrs Makarentseva, could you evaluate the demographic situation in the country nowadays?

As for Russia in general, a reduction in the crude birth rate t began in 2016. In other words, the natality dynamics have been negative for four years already. It referred to largely when the first child, then the second one were born first, while in 2019 all natality reduced.

We should understand that the crude birth rate reflects the intensity of children born in a calendar year. But we also have a big reduction in the absolute number of births. The minority generation born in the first half of the 90s is the childbearing age now — 25 years, more or less. It is clear that a small number of women can’t give birth to a lot of children. This is why the situation with natality has been unfavourable in Russia in general in the last years.

What about absolute numbers?

The number of children born last year was 1,484,500 people, with a 7,5% fall over the year (120,000 people). While the crude birth rate in 2019 was 1,51 child per woman of childbearing age. It is 4,4% below the 2018 level (1,58).

In other words, does a Russian family has 1,5 children on average?

This indicator can’t be interpreted literally. If young women suddenly begin to have children much later than their predecessors, this greatly influences the crude birth rate. To a certain degree, it is a synthetic indicator showing the dynamics of all generations during a year.

I mean not everybody has suddenly stopped giving birth to a child in Russia, young groups have simply begun to postpone childbearing. And this provided such an effect. However, it takes much time for us to confirm this hypothesis or deny it.

Photo: mosreg.ru
The crude birth rate shows the intensity of children born in a calendar year. But the absolute number of births also goes down, and this happens, first of all, because of a change in the age

“Tatar mothers in particular register the birth of a child out of wedlock rarer than others”

What is the situation in Tatarstan like?

In 2018, the crude birth rate in your region was 1,62 (I will remind you that the total Russian was 1,58). It has also been reducing since 2016, the fall was especially big between 2016 and 2017 (from 1,85 to 1,65). The average age of the mother when the first baby is born in Tatarstan is 26,2 years (in Russia it is 25,9). So in general the numbers of the republic is close to the average Russian level.

By the way, in our research done 10 years ago where we analysed the situation in Tatarstan too in detail, we made several interesting conclusions. Tatar mothers in particular register the birth of a child out of wedlock rarer than others. Moreover, we found out that in this group the moment of the official registration and child conception are closely linked. What’s more, there is a traditional movement here, in other words, marriage is registered, then a baby is conceived.

How do financial measures like maternity capital stimulate natality? Or don’t people really care about such support?

We can’t say if there is clear evidence that maternity capital managed to stimulate natality because we don’t what natality would have been if this programme hadn’t have been adopted. But experts in general agree that maternity capital helped families to decide to have the second or more children. This effect was especially strong during the first 10 years of the adoption of the programme. It is obvious that the longer a measure lasts, the more one gets used to it. Moreover, maternity capital wasn’t indexed for some time, and the ration of the amount of maternity capital and the average salary reduced than when it was just introduced. In a word, its relative price in financial terms went down. Moreover, the maternity capital programme entailed a big wave of debates. In general it drew attention to the problem of natality, support for families with children. Other decisions were made at the same time — more kindergartens began to be built and so on. Altogether this brought to a higher number in second and third children in Russian families.

Experts in general agree that maternity capital helped families to decide to have the second or more children. This effect was especially strong during the first 10 years of the adoption of the programme

“Those women who wanted to have a child soon, especially this year, will likely wait for several months

One of your recent research is on different aspects of potential maternity during the COVID-19 era. What a sample group did you have?

We did the research this spring at the peak of quarantine measures. Our survey of the population lasted from late March to May. The phone survey covered 9,500 respondents from all Russian regions. We have already begun to analyse the data and provide the first conclusions. But I can’t so far say that the final work has ended — long analysis of the data obtained is ahead.

Anyway, did the coronavirus pandemic influence women’s desire to give birth to a child according to your data?

The share of people among childless families who don’t plan to have a child in the near future increased from 10% to 23% compared to 2017, while the share among people who have one or more children did from 36% to 52%.

It is hard for me to confidently interpret the results we obtained. But we saw that respondents expressed they didn’t plan to have children further. These moods were probably linked with the influence of the time, moods in society. I can’t believe that 23% of childless couples will never want to have children. This number is obviously much higher than we can assume according to all our data. Perhaps this is the influence of the current coronavirus spring. But this issue needs further consideration.

As for intentions in the next three years, the respondents were in general positive about such a question of planned children. The number decreased compared to our previous research in 2017, but this time we changed the formulation of the question and made it harsher. Earlier the words “you are going” were used, now it is “if you are planning”, which sounds more certain and specific. We can’t say that everybody has suddenly postponed their plans for pregnancy now.

Though, indeed, as a rule, pandemics, economic crises and other shocks influence natality in the short-term. Those women who wanted to have a child soon, especially this year, will likely wait for several months, at least unless the uncertainty goes down because the uncertainty is very high now. Nobody knows how much this epidemiological crisis will last for, if we should wait for a second wave, if we go back to the self-isolation regime in autumn. We should expect that conception in spring, summer, autumn will be lower than usual.

If it becomes clear in autumn the incidence isn’t growing anymore, there won’t be a second or third wave and quarantine, the pause in pregnancies will be four-five months.

The uncertainty is very high now. Nobody knows how much this epidemiological crisis will last for, if we should wait for a second wave, if we go back to the self-isolation regime in autumn. We should expect that conception in spring, summer, autumn will be lower than usual

What are the most significant factors that influence pregnancy postponement?

There are four main factor groups. They all have different duration. Firstly, it is a direct influence of the pandemic on families due to a rise in the incidence. This factor is very significant but short. Secondly, economic factors are important — higher unemployment, lower incomes. It is now hard to evaluate the duration of the influence of this factor because people are in a state of economic uncertainty. If the economy of the country suffers not only severely but also lastingly, if the effect stretches into 2021 too, the economic factor will influence further on.

Moreover, we can single out social and psychological factors. They will likely have a short-term effect. And as soon as everything is back to a normal stable life and people stop waiting for new quarantine, this will come to an end. So economic factors have the biggest influence. And it is clear that those who lost their job or people whose income went seriously down will be hit the most. This has a strong influence on not only the desire but also the possibility of having children in the near future in general.

“Being childfree in the strictest sense of the word is very unpopular in Russia”

What families have more children? In the countryside?

Now the difference between in the city and countryside in this regard isn’t very significant. But in general the more traditional the way of like in a region, the higher natality it has. Though this difference actually is so insignificant as it sometimes seems to people who aren’t familiar with demography. They are sure that we have regions where 5-6 children on average are born to families. This is far from being true. Russian doesn’t have such high natality anywhere anymore.

How many children does a Russian family have on average?

Families with one child used to be widely spread in Russia some 10 years ago. It was a big share of families. Now the ration has changed a bit. The number of childless families and families that don’t plan children increased, moreover, families with 2-3 children grew. The share of families with three children has rise literally in the last 10 years. The distribution of children in families has equalised, and a Russian family has 1,5-2 children on average, roughly speaking.

How popular is the occurrence as childfree family popular in Russia now? Can supporters of this movement have a big influence on the demographic situation?

In the real sense, real childfree people are those who strictly don’t want to have children from the beginning and throughout their life. As a rule, it is people who know in their early youth they don’t want children and don’t change their beliefs.

In fact they are few. When we did a detailed survey 5 years ago we needed childfree respondents for, it was very hard to find them. There is a handful of them, very few. The fact that the share of childless women rises by the end of the reproductive period (44-49 years) is linked mainly not with being childfree but a big complex of factors. And we certainly can’t say that being childfree significantly influences the demographic situation in Russia.

The fact that the share of childless women rises by the end of the reproductive period is linked mainly not with being childfree but a big complex of factors. And we certainly can’t say that being childfree significantly influences the demographic situation in Russia

“The growth of childlessness is linked, first of all, with the constant postponement of childbearing”

What factors influence the absence of children among women?

The factors are different, but the sense is that their decision not to give birth to a child is made many times in life at a teenage age. The growth of childlessness is linked, first of all, with the constant postponement of childbearing. And this postponement can have various reasons — to get an education or find a job first, or simply to have a salary first, find a suitable man. Creation of a family with a partner the woman will want to have children with is one of the most important factors that influence decision-making on giving birth to a child. As the maternity age increases and the decision is postponed to 30-35 years, the health factor starts to play a role.

So there are a lot of reasons, this is a complex process in general. And it isn’t Russian specifics but a worldwide occurrence.

What’s the share of childless women in Russia?

It depends on the generation very much.

As for women who are now 44 years, there aren’t many childless women among them, about 10%. But as for younger generations who are 30-35 now, we except the number of such women will increase 1,5-2 times.

This happens because they began to have the first child much later, postpone this decision more, the lifestyle of these generations changed in general. Plus, marriage behaviour changed, families start to be formed differently. If previous generations, as a rule, had one marriage and a child was born to it, now test marriages are popular, and there can be several marriages before official marriage. The attitude to registered and non-registered marriages also seriously changed. All this is also linked with reproductive behaviour. They don’t get married and immediately have a child like it used to be. But anyway one thing means the other one.

Having many children became a notable occurrence among wealthy people with a high social status”

What if we talk about large families? Looking at some of my young girlfriends who have many children and who are at the same time better off, I would conclude that the fashion for many children is back. Am I wrong? Is it isolated cases or a tendency?

It isn’t isolated cases. If we remember the 1990s and 2000s, there was some stigmatisation of large families. And having many children was associated with poverty and troubles. If this hasn’t disappeared at all, it has certainly decreased in the last years. Having many children became a notable occurrence among wealthy people with a high social status. It has become normal to have many children, it isn’t associated with troubles.

Having many children became a notable occurrence among wealthy people with a high social status. It has become normal to have many children, it isn’t associated with troubles

What interesting demographic tendencies can you single out? What do you plan to research soon?

In the near future, we will analyse the data in detail we obtained during the spring survey we have talked about above. This research was scheduled before the pandemic, so it has a wide range of themes to study. Now we are also studying differences in the reproductive behaviour of different generations and hypotheses of this behaviour among the younger generations born in the 90s. We have the foundation to assume that they will have some differences compared to those born in the 80s of the past century. They grew up in a different society. They grew up when there were a lot of families with one child. Many of them have neither brothers nor sisters, and they saw primarily families with one child around them. This could influence their idea of a family they want to have. In this respect, the generation of the 90s will be compelling for demographers. This is what we do.

By Kristina Ivanova