Russia’s incursion into Georgia understandably evokes Cold War-era fears of a resurgent post-Soviet imperialism. But such concerns overlook a fundamental constraint. Russia is fast running out of young men.
Between 2010 and 2025, Russia’s pool of potential military recruits, aged 20-29, will decline by 44 percent, according to the United Nations. This forecast is not subject to meaningful revision; it has been “written in stone” by births that have already occurred. A collapsing supply of new workers will create not just military, but economic headwinds. All things being equal, Russia’s shrinking work force will subtract about 1 percent a year from potential economic growth over the next two decades.
The loss of the technical acumen and dynamism that young people bring to modern economies points to even greater damage. It is a safe bet, for example, that Russians will claim fewer patents, start fewer businesses and produce fewer artistic achievements than could otherwise be expected. In this regard, Russia has joined Japan and much of Europe on the path of demographically driven decline, characterized by shrinking economies of scale and falling competencies across a range of disciplines and industries.
The grinding labor shortages on Russia’s horizon are a far cry from the vast population surpluses of the early Soviet period. In 1917, the typical Russian was just 15 years old. The population had nearly doubled during the preceding generation.
Exploding populations are notorious breeding grounds of political and social strife. On any given day, a preponderance of the world’s civil conflicts play out in ultra-youthful countries - think Chad, Haiti, Nepal, Iraq - where the typical citizen is in his teens or early 20s. Unemployed young men, with their perennial disconnect between challenge and opportunity, are especially prone to violence.
The early- and mid-20th century saw governments respond to this internal threat through regimentation that, all too often, cast surplus youth into wars and civil conflicts marked by horrific casualty rates. World War I produced an estimated 15 million war deaths. The Soviet Union lost as many as 60 million in Josef Stalin’s Great Terror of the 1930s and the Second World War that followed.
Yet middle-aged countries, like present-day Russia, where the median age is 37, generally eschew militarism. Diminished labor market pressures and a citizenry that is invested in the social order provide an important impetus to peace. So too does a greater level of adult supervision.
These peaceful proclivities are reinforced by fiscal considerations. Older societies would rather spend money on pensions than military adventures. Such commitments put a premium on employing youth as productively as possible.
Although middle-aged societies are a relatively modern phenomenon, there are a handful of cases where conflicts have been initiated by older nations. With a median age of 32, Germany had the world’s oldest population when it started World War II. The typical Serb was 34 when Serbia embarked on its ethnic cleansing of Bosnia. In these cases, authoritarian regimes sought to bolster their leadership by subduing or incorporating neighbors under the pretext of righting a historical wrong. The Russo-Georgian dustup loosely fits this pattern.
America’s invasion of Iraq, at the ripe median age of 35, had nobler motives. Yet, significantly, this campaign’s widely publicized stumbles can be traced directly to a lack of manpower. If the Pentagon ever contemplated putting boots on the ground in neighboring Iran, it apparently doesn’t do so now.
In Russia’s case, the economic, fiscal and manpower strains imposed by depopulation make its current foreign policy costly indeed. The Commission on Global Aging - whose deliberations we oversaw from 1998 to 2001 - concluded that the industrial world’s best hope for growth lay in greater economic integration. Only by outsourcing labor-intensive work and specializing in high-value activities can aging, depopulating societies capture the dynamism needed to sustain their economies.
In light of these imperatives, it’s hard to imagine a more self-defeating stance than that of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who has declared, “We don’t see or feel advantages from the membership [in the World Trade Organization], if they exist at all.” By shunning trade and embracing a wasteful militarism, Russia is on the verge of a strategic blunder that its diminished future generations will surely regret.
The miscalculations of earlier strongmen underscore the clear and present danger of Russia’s renewed expansionism. The sustainability of this course is another matter.
Richard Fairbanks, a former U.S. ambassador at large, and Paul S. Hewitt were, respectively, formerly president and Global Aging Initiative director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. They are co-founders of Americans for Generational Equity.