Below is a complimentary Demography Unplugged research note written by Hedgeye Demography analyst Neil Howe. Click here to learn more and subscribe.

Will Demography Weaken Russia's Military? - 3 2 2021 8 39 52 AM

Thanks to the birthrate decline following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia’s military is facing an acute shortage of eligible recruits a generation later. In the 2020s, writes the author, the number of 20- to 34-year-old men is projected to fall by as much as 20%. (The National Interest)

NH: In the mid-1990s, during the stormy presidency of Boris Yeltsin, Russia experienced a crushing birth dearth.

Now, 25 years later, there is a relatively small generation of young Russians in their 20s. (See “Russia Enters Negative Population Growth Territory.”) This National Interest article argues that the birthrate decline will hurt Russia's military by creating recruiting shortages into the indefinite future.

IMO, this writer is exaggerating the magnitude of Russia's challenge. The number of young recruits age 20-29 will not stay low indefinitely. Yes, the number will fall in the near future, but after 2025 it will rise again for the next 15 years.

Why? Whatever else one may say about President Vladimir Putin, he has succeeded at pulling Russia's total fertility rate (TFR) out of its tailspin. In 1999, Russia's TFR hovered around 1.2, but recently it has risen as high as 1.8.

But that's not the only reason for the projected rise in 20-year-olds. You also have to look at the pattern of successive "echo" baby booms reverberating loudly through recent Russian history.

Let's watch how this works. The baby bust in the late 1990s was in large part driven by a huge baby bust during the Brezhnev 1970s, which--25 years later--became a bust of young adults. Even holding fertility constant, they were not going to have as many children as parents were having in earlier decades. Following them came a rebound of young adults that peaked around 2010. They gave birth to a larger batch of babies. These "Putin boom" babies will themselves begin to come of age after 2025, raising the number of recruitment-age Russians.

In other words, a recruitment boom will follow the current recruitment bust. There is BTW a name for this echo-boom and echo-bust phenomenon: It is called "Sundt's law," named after the nineteenth-century Swedish demographer Eilert Lund Sundt.

He was the first to notice these undulating parent-to-child patterns. In Russia (and in certain other countries, like Iran), the impact of Sundt's law is powerful.

Now for some calculations by the United Nations Population Division. The UN projects that the number of male Russians ages 20-29 will fall from 8M in 2020 to 7M in 2025. But by 2030, it will increase again to 8M, reflecting the "Putin" boom, and will peak later on in 2040 at 10M. It will again start to drop in 2045 but will eventually level out. (See “Russia’s Demographics are Anomalous.”)

Will Demography Weaken Russia's Military? - Marc2

Again, my main point is this: The number of young Russians ebbs and flows. And the Russian military won’t always be picking recruits from an empty barrel.

To be sure, Putin will have to deal with a falling number of young men in the short term. And Russia is unlikely to experience any sort of secular population expansion over the foreseeable future.

To handle such constraints, Putin will do what South Korea and Japan are doing. He will allow more women to serve, soften age restrictions, and invest more in high-tech equipment like robotics, drones, and AI. (See “Low Fertility Countries Look to Robot Soldiers.”) He has already dedicated significant resources toward modernizing the Russian military.

President Putin knows as well as anyone that Russia can never again depend, as did Czar Nicholas or Comrade Stalin, on sheer numbers. And he will do what he must to compensate.

*  *  *


Neil Howe is a renowned authority on generations and social change in America. An acclaimed bestselling author and speaker, he is the nation's leading thinker on today's generations—who they are, what motivates them, and how they will shape America's future.

A historian, economist, and demographer, Howe is also a recognized authority on global aging, long-term fiscal policy, and migration. He is a senior associate to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., where he helps direct the CSIS Global Aging Initiative.

Howe has written over a dozen books on generations, demographic change, and fiscal policy, many of them with William Strauss. Howe and Strauss' first book, Generations is a history of America told as a sequence of generational biographies. Vice President Al Gore called it "the most stimulating book on American history that I have ever read" and sent a copy to every member of Congress. Newt Gingrich called it "an intellectual tour de force." Of their book, The Fourth Turning, The Boston Globe wrote, "If Howe and Strauss are right, they will take their place among the great American prophets."

Howe and Strauss originally coined the term "Millennial Generation" in 1991, and wrote the pioneering book on this generation, Millennials Rising. His work has been featured frequently in the media, including USA Today, CNN, the New York Times, and CBS' 60 Minutes.

Previously, with Peter G. Peterson, Howe co-authored On Borrowed Time, a pioneering call for budgetary reform and The Graying of the Great Powers with Richard Jackson.

Howe received his B.A. at U.C. Berkeley and later earned graduate degrees in economics and history from Yale University.