Ukraine’s war is causing a demographic crisis

Ukraine’s war is causing a demographic crisis
Eight million people have fled Ukraine, most of them women, that will make an already disastrous demographic crisis much worse. / bne IntelliNews
By Ben Aris in Berlin February 13, 2023

Ukraine was already suffering from a demographic crisis that will take Emerging Europe population levels back to the early 20th century before the war started, but battlefield death, emigration and low birth rates due to the war will make it far worse.

Thanks to three decades of mismanagement Ukraine was already the poorest country in Europe before the war, with a per capita GDP of only $13,860 in 2021, according to the World Bank in PPP (purchase power parity) terms. That has surely collapsed since the war started.

Low wages lead to massive economic migration. At the same time without much of a future to look forward too birth rates had collapsed to a mere 1.22 births per woman in 2020, according to the World Bank, one of the lowest rates in Europe. The current birth rate for Ukraine in 2023 is 8.618 births per 1000 people, a 2.25% decline from 2022.

“The ever-present proximity of death or Russian occupation, family separation, and financial as well as physical insecurity is having a dire effect on Ukraine's already-declining birth rate,” the World Bank said.

All these trends have become worse since the war started. The United Nations reports that over 8mn Ukrainians have relocated to other countries as a result of the ongoing war, or approximately one fifth of Ukraine's pre-war population. Most of these refugees are currently residing in Europe (5mn) or Russia (3mn), with another quarter million in North America, according to the UN.

Due to restrictions on "fighting age" men (those under 60) leaving the country, the majority (85%) of Ukrainian adults who have migrated are female. This means that women outnumber men in this refugee group by almost 6 to 1, which is a further hit to fertility rates.

Before the war, Ukraine had a female-skewed population, but this was mostly seen in older age groups. In the crucial 18-34 age group for family formation, there were over six-times more women who have left compared to men. As a result, Ukraine now has a deficit of young and middle-aged women.

Ukrainian refugees are also highly educated, with three quarters (76%) having received a tertiary education, compared to only just under a third (30%) of the pre-war population. This is reflected in the refugee communities in Krakow and Vienna, where two thirds (66%) and eight out of ten (83%) respectively had a tertiary education.

Additionally, these refugees are the country’s most productive as only 4% were unemployed before they left the country -- significantly lower than Ukraine's pre-war unemployment rate of almost 9%.

The war has not only sent millions of people over the border, but it has largely sent some of the most industrious and well educated members of society, and the nucleus of future families.

While pre-war most economic migrants, especially those to Poland, said they intended to only stay three months to make some money before returning home, a more recent post-war survey found that a third of the Ukrainians in Germany had no intention of leaving again once the war is over.

The demographic shifts are likely to have a huge impact on Ukraine’s future growth prospects once peace returns that will significantly slow growth and extend the recovery period by years. The ongoing war in Ukraine has led to a massive migration of its population, with a significant portion being women and highly educated individuals. This migration has resulted in imbalances in the age and gender structure of the country, as well as a shortage of young and middle-aged women.

The war is an unmitigated disaster for Ukraine’s long-term outlook.

As bne IntelliNews reported, six years after the Euromaidan revolution it appeared that Ukraine was finally starting to enjoy some of the benefits of the catch-up growth that most countries in the region finished a decade ago. And in a feature comparing side-by-side the Russia and Ukraine’s economies before the war Ukraine was starting to close the gap with Russia and wages, among other things, and was on course to overtake Russia as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s reforms started to make an impact, whereas Russian President Vladimir Putin’s austerity had hobbled Russia’s development.

Thanks to the war Ukraine’s economy shrank by some 30% in 2022 and a large part of its energy infrastructure has been destroyed. While poverty levels were low before the war, despite the low wages, now the World Bank estimates that poverty could rise to 50% of the population this year.