Monday, February 7, 2011

Trends and Things

I recently read an article that mentioned that the UN projects Armenia’s population in 2050 to be 2.3 – 2.5 million, equal to or lower than in 2010. How much lower is open to debate since government statistics here seem to be widely doubted (there are various reasons for that, but in this case one reason is that many people emigrated to Russia for work opportunities and still own property or have families here and are still counted as residents).

If, according to the official statistics, the population is currently 3.2 million, the decline would be about 25%. If alternate statistics are to be believed, the current population is about the same as projected in 2050, meaning no population growth in 40 years. In comparison, neighboring Azerbaijan is projected to double its population over the same period.

The article went on to mention that a UN poll revealed that 46% of adults surveyed only plan to have one child because they hope to leave the country. And Gallup conducted a poll about emigration patterns in post-Soviet countries in which 39% of Armenians polled said they would like to leave the country permanently. A man I know, educated and employed in a job he finds interesting, is nonetheless moving to Germany. “I love Armenia,” he told me, “but I don’t like living here now.” In many cases, men move to Russia on their own for work and their wives and children remain in Armenia.

What is surprising about all of this is that the Armenian people are very proud of their heritage, their history, their traditions and their families. But it is not surprising when you consider the lack of job opportunities, the cynicism toward the government and the level of corruption that is understood to exist in all spheres of life – education, health care, government, etc.

But this can lead to changes in family dynamics and traditions. Usually, a man lives with his parents until he marries and his bride moves in with his family. If there is more than one son, I have been told that the parents may decide which son will continue to live in the house after his marriage based on expectations about which son will better provide for his parents. One result of this is that the parents are taken care of as they age with one or more generations after them in the house. [As a side note, I am often met with surprise when I tell people that I live alone in New York, as does my mother.]

And so, emigration is one of the trends that are leading to what are likely to be fundamental changes in Armenian life. As it continues and the birth rate stays flat (or sometimes declines), more elderly people are living on their own, many unable to care for themselves since they never contemplated having to do so. As the lack of job opportunities continues, de facto single parent families proliferate (some of the fathers working abroad may visit home once a year or less frequently and their remittances – which incidentally is a large part of the Armenian economy - seem tantamount to alimony).

Another article I read pointed out that there are three trends noted in marriages here – the number of marriages declined 4% in 2010 compared to 2009, people are marrying later (men are waiting an average of three years longer and women four) and the divorce rate increased 6% compared to 2009. Considering the religious and patriarchal traditions in Armenia, the increase in the divorce rate is striking.

Then there is the trend of “brain-drain” as educated people leave Armenia. During our technical training some months back, one of the speakers talked about the double impact of this phenomenon, pointing out that not only do the most talented go elsewhere, but they leave less qualified people in charge of government and businesses. This, in turn, contributes to the stagnation in both and that “second layer” is looking to leave also. But I recently heard of an international development person critiquing a job-skills program proposal – saying that it is not a good idea since it would contribute to the brain drain if people get more skilled and then take those skills abroad to get work (to me, though, that logic sounded like the intellectual equivalent of the old saying about keeping women barefoot and pregnant).

Another interesting thing I heard recently related to higher education. Armenia requires two years of military service for all men in Armenia between ages 18 and 27 although university study allowed deferral of service until after graduation. I was told the other day, though, that the deferral is no longer available and the person relaying this told me that he expected it would probably lead to a decline in university enrollment (since most guys only enroll to take advantage of the deferral and probably wouldn’t bother after they are done with the army). Women, on the other hand, commonly seek a university education although society expects them not to pursue a career but rather to have and raise children. But if his prediction proves accurate, an increasing majority of people with higher education would be women.

So what does this all mean? To me, it sounds very similar to trends I have seen in the US over the years. The stigma of divorce began to lift as it became more common. There was an increase in single-parent families with women as heads of households. Women increasingly entered the workforce either due to being heads of households or out of necessity for two-income families in a bad economy. The population started getting older on average as people lived longer and the size of families declined.

More specific to Armenia, a lopsided proportion of educated women would likely further their movement into the workforce if industries take hold requiring specialized training. [There continue to be jobs seen as “men’s jobs” (physical labor, drivers, pilots) and there is a stigma attached to a woman doing that sort of work even though many women worked in factories during the Soviet period. But since manufacturing taking hold here again is not likely, these typical “men’s jobs” would continue to be in short supply.]

So, will Armenia change the way the US did as it moved out of the “Mad Men” era? Maybe, but it will depend in part on whether there is anyone left here.


After all I have said about the winter here being unusually mild, things definitely changed at the end of January. We had snow every day for a week and the temperatures plummeted (most mornings when I get up the outside temperature has been between 0 and -10 degrees Fahrenheit). While the accumulation hasn’t been too bad, there is little in the way of plowing and the snow gets packed down and icy. Getting around can be like walking on a bobsled course. Having said that, Gyumri looks really nice under the snow (pictures in the albums linked at right).

And while I was away for a day and a half, my pipes froze (I guess that can happen when the house isn't insulated) although they did not burst. I thought I could solve the issue by turning on the water heater – but instead the water heater blew up (literally – the pipes flew across the room, taking out the dishes in the drainboard in the process – luckily I was about a foot to the right of the explosion). I summoned the landlord and he also took a look at the water meter, noticing that the glass cover was cracked. "Must be some ice lodged there" said he. Repairmen came to take a look at the damage and helped get the pipes unfrozen (the funniest part was when one asked if I had a hair dryer to use to warm up the pipes). All seemed fine except for the prospect of not having hot water until the water heater is replaced. I let the water run for a while as requested but then shut it off. A while later, though, I heard water running again in the kitchen. Going in to investigate, I saw water spraying out of the water meter, traveling airborne across the kitchen and soaking everything. We turned off the water completely until the meter was replaced the next day. While the water is restored, the timing of hot water is yet to be determined. It looks like a return to bucket baths is in order.

I guess I spoke too soon.