Expect the Unexpected

What to Expect When No One’s Expecting America’s Coming Demographic Disaster Jonathan LastEncounter Books, 2013; 248 pages, $23.99 Jonathan Last’s What to Expect When No One’s Expecting is a surprisingly entertaining tour of demographics. A talented writer, Last takes a dry, academic subject and makes it come alive. He persuasively argues that demographic decline is widespread—and that this decline is a problem. His diagnosis of the causes of that decline is uneven, compelling in parts but not in others, and his discussion of possible solutions, as Last himself would admit, is lackluster. But in his conclusion, he offers an interesting glimmer of hope. Last is at his best when discussing demographic decline, and why it matters. According to Last, everything we have learned about demographics is wrong. For years, the looming demographic crisis was over-population. Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb argued that, by the 1980s, hundreds of millions of people would starve to death from the inevitable scarcity, and this argument took America by storm. Johnny Carson hosted Ehrlich several times. (Would that Last be so lucky as to spend his evenings on The Tonight Show!)But over-population fears were overblown. Fast-forward some 45 years and America (and the rest of the world) is having a hard time reaching the magic number in demographics: 2.1, the replacement rate. Japan and Italy have fertility rates of about 1.4. China has a fertility rate of 1.54. America’s rate hovers around 1.93, thanks to the immigrant population (though not for long, since immigrant populations, Last explains, quickly assimilate into America’s unofficial one-child culture). The rate for the white, college-educated American woman is 1.6. Declining fertility in a first world country threatens both the economy and the welfare state. America looks forward to an aging population (with no one to care for it), a dwindling workforce, shrinking cities, less innovation, declini
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