What you can tell about a country’s future by looking at its gender balance

Shoppers out in force in Beijing. EPA

The human sex ratio, which is usually defined in terms of the number of males per 100 females, varies greatly between countries and regions. The biological norm is for the sex ratio at birth to be about 105 more or less everywhere – meaning just over 51% of births are boys and just under 49% are girls.

But with equal care and feeding, females die less quickly. It is therefore not surprising that the sex ratio of the population as a whole in the West and in many other regions leans in favour of women. In the UK this ratio is 99; in the US, 97; and in the EU, 96. In sub-Saharan Africa, where life expectancy at birth for is relatively low for both sexes, the ratio is 99. In Russia, Ukraine and some former Eastern bloc countries, it is among the lowest in the world: 86 for both Russia and Ukraine.

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Russia’s male problem

There are other countries – notably China and India – where the ratio is abnormally high: the ratio is 106 in both countries. Yet even in India and China, there are now more elderly women than men. The sex ratio among over-65s is 90 in India and 91 in China. By comparison, it is 76 for the UK and 75 for the US. For Russia this ratio seems astonishingly low: only 45.

Couple this with the fact that the overall sex ratio is also quite low in Russia, yet the sex ratio at birth and for childhood years is in line with the international norm. The difference in life expectancy at birth between males and females in Russia is also 13 years in favour of females – the widest anywhere. It all suggests a problem of “missing men” in Russia (the reverse of the “missing women” problem in India and China).

Since 1992, Russia’s population has declined by 7m from 149m to 142m. This decline is linked to high mortality rates and a sudden sharp decline in fertility. After the collapse of communism, the fertility rate plunged from 2.2 births per woman in 1987 to 1.17 in 1991 (the replacement level of fertility is 2.1). It has since recovered to around 1.3, but that is still among the lowest in the world. At the same time, the death rate went in the opposite direction. In 1991-92 it passed the birth rate and since then Russia has recorded nearly 13m more deaths than births.

This upsurge in mortality has been disproportionately concentrated among men and women of working age, particularly men. For men in their 30s and 40s, Russia’s death rate today is roughly twice what it was 40 years ago. It has been estimated that if Russia had maintained the hardly-exacting survival rates of the years just before the collapse of communism, there would have been 6.6m fewer deaths between 1992 and 2006 (4.9m of them men).

Drowning in vodka

While there have been rapid increases in HIV/AIDS infections and tuberculosis in Russia, the main causes of this mortailty upsurge are deaths from heart disease and “external causes” such as injuries, homicide and suicide. Alcohol is the common denominator. Russian men in particular tend to consume hard spirits and to drink in binges.

It has been estimated that an average male adult drinks a bottle of vodka per week (or the equivalent). Russians have always drunk vodka, but the psychological stress following the collapse of communism would appear to have played an important role in recent times. One is tempted to say that a large number of Russians have lost the will to live and are simply drinking themselves to death.

The Russian love of vodka is alive and well. EPA

But why have men of working age suffered more than women? It has been suggested that the gender order that developed during the Soviet era made men virtually redundant within the typical Russian household, especially in urban areas. It served the perceived needs of the state by expecting women to combine roles as workers, mothers and household managers; while men’s far more limited role involved serving as soldiers, workers and managers.

Soviet society was “matrifocal” with everyday family life relying “heavily on cross-generational help and caregiving relations, taking place mostly between women”, and men estranged from most family spheres. The respect men commanded within the household depended mainly on their role as primary breadwinners. Once that role came under threat or disappeared at the end of the Soviet era, they had no other roles or support network to fall back on. Since vodka drinking had always been part of traditional Russian male culture, it was the obvious culturally appropriate way for men to cope with their hardships.

The danger here is that if dying young is common, it affects people’s economic decisions. They will be less likely to spend years acquiring training and education to benefit their future. Companies become less likely to invest in their workforces. People are less likely to save for their futures, which can become a drain on the state in years to come.

The India-China comparison

Be that as it may, men are not dying in larger numbers than women in Russia because of any deliberate discrimination against them. In India and China, by contrast, the culture of discrimination against females has been mainly responsible for the sex-ratio imbalances. Both countries have a problem with sex-selective abortions and higher rates of female child mortailty.

Having said that, life expectancy at birth for both males and females has been increasing in both countries. The gains for females have been much greater than for males in the past few years, and overall female life expectancy now exceeds male life expectancy in both countries by about four years. This increase in female life expectancy is tilting the sex ratio away from its male bias.

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South Korea may provide a precedent. Its sex ratio at birth was the highest in the world in 1990, peaking at 117 (54% boys). Only ten years earlier it had been normal – just at the point when sex-determination tests were becoming available and sex-selective abortions became possible. And in more recent years, the figures have returned to around the norm. Contributory factors are thought to include increased urbanisation; structural change in the economy from agriculture to non-agriculture; greater employment opportunities for women; greater prosperity for individuals; establishing more nuclear families and several laws giving special rights to women.

The proportion of girl babies is rising in the Punjab. EPA

In India there are now signs that those states with the biggest male birth bias – Punjab and Haryana – are also beginning to reverse. But this has to be set against the fact that the sex ratio in the birth-to-six-years category in some states with less male birth bias has been increasing. In China, the sex ratio at birth did shift appreciably towards girls during 2000-05 in several regions such as the contiguous south-eastern provinces of Guandong, Hainan and Guangxi. In some other areas, the ratio has been stagnant.

Korea opportunities?

It is possible that India and China will follow the South Korea path towards a more balanced sex ratio as their economies develop. High sex ratios at birth continue to be major problems, but rising life expectancy at birth for both males and females is encouraging: the gains have been strongest in the last few years, particularly for females. India also has the advantage that her youth ratio in the population is higher as compared to many other countries.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that India and China probably have better prospects of sustained economic growth in the foreseeable future than Russia, where the situation continues to look gloomy. The old Soviet gender order is being actively maintained and binge vodka drinking continues to be part of traditional male culture. Death rates among working age people are still a problem. Male life expectancy is lower than in the late 1950s. Russia wishes to be a great economic and political power again. But surely an economy and society where human capital is as precariously poised as in Russia is likely to be greatly limited by that weakness.