Educated and Unemployed: Russia’s Youth

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 94


Researchers from Moscow’s prestigious Higher School of Economics have found that a third of Russia’s unemployed youth today have advanced degrees or have completed other tertiary education. According to their recently published report, “The Russian Labor Market: Trends, Institutions, and Structural Changes,” the share of those aged 20–24 with specialist or professional higher education but unemployed has risen from 7 percent in 1995 to 28 percent in 2015. The report notes a decline in NEETs (the international acronym for Not in Employment, Education, or Training—those believed to be the greatest problem for society) aged 15–24 from 25 percent, in 1995 to 17 percent in 2015; but it leaves the impression that the bulk of the decline in NEETs can be accounted for by an increase in education. In fact, graduates are emerging at the end of the university pipeline simply to become older NEETs. The report suggests several possible causes of the increase in the educated unemployed: growth in poor-quality universities that do not adequately prepare graduates for the market, a discrepancy between the labor market and the skills learned in school, entitled youth turning their noses up at low salaries, and even cultural change whereby it is less acceptable for young women simply to marry and stay at home (Izvestia, July 4).

The needs of the country may swing another way, however, as the population pyramid for Russia portends demographic collapse in the next 20 years. The state might increasingly advise young Russian women to stay at home and have babies. Presently with 142 million people in the country, some projections augur that number will decline to 128 million by 2050 and 117 million by 2100 (, accessed July 7). The main reason is that the current youth generation is a lot smaller than those in the past: official government statistics show that the share of the Russian population aged 15–30 declined from 24 percent in 2002 to 19.7 percent in 2015 (, accessed July 7). This is partially a ripple effect of the calamitous 1990s, when the birth rate plummeted even as the mortality rate saw a steep rise and male life expectancy in Russia went as low as 56. The virtual collapse of the state and the steep rise in the cost of living following privatization meant many young couples declined to have children or, if they did, restricted themselves solely to one offspring (Timothy Heleniak, “Russia’s Population Perils,” in Stephen K. Wegren & Dale R Herspring, eds., After Putin’s Russia: Past Imperfect, Future Unknown, Rowman & Littlefield, 2009). Sociological studies about the importance of birth order and siblings on the socialization of young children and the character traits they retain into adulthood suggest the consequences of the changing Russian family structure could be sizeable. Regardless, the decline in the Russian population in the 1990s was the largest for any population outside of wartime ever, and has consequences for the state.

One of these serious consequences is the government’s perceived need to protect and guard today’s Russian youth from external influences viewed as malicious. This policy now regularly includes surveillance and harassment of foreigners, including those on legitimate business in the country, by local security forces. The author knows several people who have been subjected to such treatment, although details are not given in order to protect the identity of those individuals. Another consequence of Russia’s population decline is increased immigration from Central Asia and the South Caucasus, as well as from Russia’s own internal abroad—the North Caucasus. And those workers tended to be willing to take on the more menial jobs that ethnic Russians refuse to do. Some have suggested that Islamic migrants might pose a long-term security risk to the integrity of the Russian Federation, although evidence of the extent of radicalism among guest worker communities inside Russia is not exactly clear cut (see EDM, February 18, 2014; September 9, 2015; May 19, 2016.

Changes in the employment prospects and social structure of contemporary Russian youth go some way toward explaining the demographic composition of opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s supporters in recent protests. Commentators were surprised at the number of young people at the March 26 protests (see EDM, March 27) and again at the June 12 protests. If, in 2011, it was the “creative classes” that led demonstrations (in Moscow if not elsewhere), then real unemployment prospects and exclusion from the political arena appear to be driving the youth to lead protests in Russia today. Modernization means more people hold advanced degrees; but increasingly, these same people demand a greater role in the country’s politics. Presumably as a way of combatting this trend, President Vladimir Putin and his team in the Kremlin have planned trips to meet with and listen to youth when Putin travels in support of governors up for regional elections. In Belgorod, for instance, he met with a student construction brigade (stroyotryad) on July 14 and then a week later with students of the Sochi center for gifted children. The topic of youth is thus expected to be one of the leading issues in the upcoming presidential campaign (, July 7).