During Soviet rule, Latvia became the most industrialized and urbanized republic of the Soviet Union. While the importance of industry has deceased since the break-up, urbanization in Latvia remains high, hovering at around 78 percent of the population living in urban centers. The high level of pollution emitted by Latvia's factories contributes to low life expectancy, especially for males. Adding to the danger of shortened lives is a Latvian diet traditionally high in fats, a national aversion to exercise, and a male propensity toward heavy smoking. Nonetheless, the economic hardship caused by the breakup has improved the general health of Latvians and life expectancies are creeping upward.
Females live longer in Latvia but still do not experience economic equality with males. In 1998 the real GDP per capita for females was US$3,330 while for men it was US$4,664, a difference of almost 29 percent. There are more young women in secondary school and more in higher education. This may be due to the need for young men to begin work at an earlier age.
The dominance of service sector and light industries explains the high level of urbanization in Latvia. The city centers, which were previously most Russian, contain all of Latvia's institutions of higher education. The large percentage of Russians remaining in the city and the prohibitive cost of housing for students makes acquisition of a degree difficult for Latvians, who in 1989 were fourth in ethnic groups in Latvia to be enrolled in university.
The total workforce in Latvia in 1997 stood at 1.4 million, with an unemployment rate of 9.6 percent in 1999. As a result of economic conditions, many people are forced to work more than 40 hours per week in order to gain extra income. But simultaneously, many enterprises are unable to pay their employees a full week's wages, forcing employees to work part-time or to take unpaid leave. The legislation of Latvia regards forced holidays and a shortened business week as concealed forms of unemployment.