Interview with sociology professor on how the war will impact Ukraine’s demographics

7 June, 06:01 PM
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Professor Ella Libanova, director of the M. Ptukha Institute of Demography and Social Research of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, is convinced that the post-war baby boom should not be expected. (Photo:Oleksandr Medvedev)

Professor Ella Libanova, director of the M. Ptukha Institute of Demography and Social Research of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, is convinced that the post-war baby boom should not be expected. (Photo:Oleksandr Medvedev)

In an interview with NV, published on June 7, the director of the Institute of Demography and Social Sciences, Professor Ella Libanova spoke about the impact of the full-scale Russian war on Ukraine’s population, and why we shouldn’t expect a WWII-style post-war baby boom.

Besides direct combat casualties, which aren’t published, at least 4,000 civilians have been killed so far in the Russian invasion, and 5 million people have fled abroad. Some of these emigrants won’t come back, Libanova predicts.

Even prior to the war, Ukraine had been facing demographic decline due to sagging birthrates, youth flight, and an aging populace, which are likely to lead to a workforce crisis and financial issues.

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The interview below has been edited for clarity.

NV: Is the war going to exacerbate the already dim Ukrainian demographic outlook?

Libanova: No question that echoes of this war will persist for multiple generations. Wartime inevitably leads to declining birthrates, further lowering our country’s population of children. Age expectancy forecasts are similarly grim. Even before the war, we were falling behind on this metric, mostly because of pervasive unhealthy lifestyles, traffic safety, and healthcare.

And that’s with Ukraine leading the world in life expectancy back in the 1960s. Naturally, war causes a spike in mortality, coupled with a hit to the population's health – from high levels of stress and lack of readily available medical treatment.

Nevertheless, these losses won’t be catastrophic, they will be in the thousands – as opposed to millions.

NV: What are the most acute areas of demographic losses we’re facing right now?

Libanova: Currently, we’re hurting mostly from emigration. Even the most pessimistic estimates confirm that more people have left the country than died in the war. Government data indicates that since May 10, net border crossings have been at 5,000-6,000 per day, meaning that the cumulative net number is positive at 200,000 people.

However, I’m not convinced all these returning people are the same who have fled the country earlier in the war. Perhaps, it could be migrant workers returning home, or people who cross the border back-and-forth for other reasons.

It's certain that some women and children who have evacuated from Ukraine will settle down abroad, never to return. On top of that, their husbands and fathers of their children will join them, as soon as it becomes possible.

It’s difficult to estimate the total number of such cases. Much will depend on how long the active phase of the war lasts for, and what part of the country it will directly involve. For example, if the fighting continues for six more months, many women will eventually find work abroad and stay there, even if initially they didn’t plan to emigrate.

This could be anywhere between 600,000 and 5 million Ukrainian citizens. It will inevitably reduce the labor pool, especially its younger cohorts.

Long-term, this means that the state will be less fiscally capable to finance itself. We will have to attract a foreign workforce to properly develop and grow our economy.

NV: What is Ukraine’s total population going to be after the war?

Libanova: Best-case scenario, the country’s population will decline to 35 million by 2030, worst case – to 30 million. It will all depend on how the conflict develops, on how much more destruction occurs, and on the scale and pace of post-war economic recovery and job creation.

NV: Conventional wisdom says there is usually a baby boom following a war. How true is that, and should we expect something like in Ukraine?

Libanova: I’m not convinced of a sharp spike in post-war birthrates in Ukraine, mostly because of how widespread birth control has become in the 21st century. The baby boom of old wars ended in the middle of the last century. Those were long wars, where married couples spent years apart, and families were having as many children as they could, after husbands returned from fighting abroad.

Now, children are born mostly when the parents want them. In their turn, parents are focused more on their own personal goals and development – careers, education, recreation – than on having more than 1-2 children.

Any potential significant increases in birth rates would depend on very active and effective pro-natalist policies, increased living standards, the availability of affordable housing, and so on. All that could be possible only after the war ends for good. Until then, few Ukrainian women would choose to get pregnant.

NV: Are there any lessons we draw from post-WWII demographics? How did countries attempt to remedy the situation then, and were they successful?

Libanova: Unlike what we’re dealing with now, most demographic losses in WWII were not to migration flows, but to casualties of war. European countries managed to partially mend the gap, thanks to rapid economic recovery and the Marshall plan, which helped to preserve the remaining populations, and attracted immigrants.

After WWII, France was the first country to introduce monetary incentives for having children. A program like that usually remains effective only for 3-4 years. Afterwards, either the bonuses have to be raised, or the reality of lower birthrates has to be accepted. And while these initiatives are never as effective as we hope, it’s still crucial to provide financial assistance to families with children, given how important it is to prevent them from falling into poverty.

In general, whenever a country manages to compensate for its wartime population losses, it happens very slowly, and invariably involves immigration. For example, Belarus reached its pre-war population only in the 1970s.

NV: What are the more practical of such policies that Ukraine should consider?

Libanova: It’s paramount to focus on increasing life expectancy by combating premature mortality – when 30-40-year-old Ukrainians die from causes that are unheard of for their peers in developed countries.

For instance, we could try to push the average age of cancer- and cardiovascular-related deaths to 75-80 years, and almost completely eradicate mortality, associated with accidents, poisonings, and infectious diseases. We would have to establish a culture of healthy living, improve working conditions, reduce traffic-related fatalities, and effectively reform our healthcare system, with a focus on preventive medicine.

But even with improved life expectancy, our population will still become older, which won’t bring substantial demographic growth on its own.

We shouldn’t expect to discover some silver bullet to solve our demographic problems. Our course of action is well-known and understood: reduce population flight and work to preserve and prolong every life.

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