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East Europe and Former USSR

Government Support Of Aging Populations

Not only do low birth rates directly cause population aging in a purely arithmetic way, by reducing the relative number of young people, but the economic and political context of these trends further reinforces the relationship. Traditional family-based intergenerational networks become unworkable when challenged by more people (mostly women who no longer have husbands) surviving longer, with fewer children. Many countries in the world faced this problem, and raised taxes on working-age households to pay for new programs for the growing older population. Demographic aging coincided with the appearance of the "welfare state" in many countries. In the national budgets of several prosperous but demographically old western European countries at the turn of the century, it was common for government revenues to account for nearly half of the total gross domestic product of the economy. Heavy taxes reduced disposable income of younger families, further discouraging births. Fewer births then reinforced population aging, in a spiral that generated growing concern among policy makers and scholars of population worldwide.

This strategy was no longer available to governments in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union entering the twenty-first century. They were saddled with a legacy of centralization, mismanagement, and oppression that thoroughly discredited the previous political system, and for many people, destroyed trust in government itself. Alienation and cynicism, pervasive throughout the region, produced massive evasion of taxes. The state sectors of these economies shriveled throughout the region, from the Baltic to the Caspian Seas. At the turn of the century, available figures showed government revenues as a far smaller share of gross domestic product in these countries than in western Europe (even assuming that it was possible to measure gross domestic product in these disrupted economies).

Governments faced with revenue collapse had to decide where to allocate meager remaining funds. One victim of the shortage of government money was the health care system, since in all these countries the health professions had been largely absorbed into government employment. To the extent that this remained the case, health care was starved of resources. To the extent that health care was privatized, it immediately became inflated out of the reach of many ordinary citizens of these countries. As a result, economic prosperity was linked to enjoyment of healthy old age, both within and between countries in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Figure 2 shows that in more prosperous countries (particularly central Europe and the Baltic republics) the share of life spent by women in a disabled state was much smaller than in poorer countries of the region (particularly the central Asian republics). For example, the relative prosperity of the Czech Republic explains why health in old age was better in that country (see Fig. 2). Of course, the link between money and health is not unique to this region. It appears wherever market forces dominate life.

Hardest-hit of all sectors of the population were the growing numbers of old-age pensioners, a crisis made even worse by the peculiar retirement ages adopted in the state socialist epoch: men generally retired at sixty, and women in many of these countries retired at fifty-five even though they consistently outlived men by many years. Actuarial pressures raised these ages in several countries after the collapse of state socialist governments, but even so, older citizens of the countries in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union found their monthly benefits shrank to the vanishing point in real purchasing power. Although largely invisible because it involved people too old and frail to take to the streets and too dependent to go on strike, the resulting poverty and desperation formed a very real human tragedy.

In terms of care of the oldest members of the population, the initial transition out of communism is judged by history as a discouraging failure. However, precisely because the societies of eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union could not turn to old answers of the twentieth century in responding to population aging, they entered the new century with a stronger incentive than any other part of the world to develop Figure 2 SOURCE: Author new and innovative ways to deal with this demographic challenge.

For further details about the situation in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, and for sources of many figures used here, consult the U.S. Census Bureau publication Aging in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, by Velkoff and Kinsella and see the Internet web sites of the World Health Organization and the World Bank.



CARLSON, E. "European Contrasts in Sex Ratios: Implications for Living Arrangements in Old Age." European Journal of Population 6, no. 2 (1990): 117–141.

COALE, A. "How a Population Ages or Grows Younger." In Population: The Vital Revolution. Edited by Ronald Freedman. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday-Anchor, 1964. Pages 47–58.

United States Census Bureau. Aging in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Washington, D.C.

VELKOFF, V., and KINSELLA, K. Aging in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1993.

World Bank. "World Development Indicators." Available on the World Wide Web at www.worldbank.org

World Health Organization. "World Health Report 2000." Available on the Internet at www.who.org

Additional topics

Medicine EncyclopediaAging Healthy - Part 2East Europe and Former USSR - Population Aging And The Birth Rate, Sex Ratio Contrasts In Old Age, Marital Status Contrasts At Old Ages