Expect the Unexpected

What to Expect When No One’s Expecting

America’s Coming Demographic Disaster

  • Jonathan Last
  • Encounter 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, declining economic growth, and a bankrupt welfare state. In third world countries, the problem is much bleaker: declining fertility leads to violence and revolution.

So what brought about this demographic decline? Last discusses a plethora of causes. To be sure, he explains, no grand conspiracy or government program has created the one-child policy in America. This is not China, coercing families through fines, licenses, and forced abortions to achieve a below replacement rate. Rather, “a complex constellation of factors, operating independently, with foreseeable and unintended consequences,” tempts Americans into having one child: “From big things—like the decline in church attendance and the increase of women in the workforce—to little things—like a law mandating car seats in Tennessee or the reform of divorce statutes in California—our modern world has evolved in such a way as to subtly discourage childbearing.”

The clearest cause of America’s declining fertility is the sexual revolution, in particular contraception, abortion, cohabitation, and divorce. Together these divorce sex from childbearing and both from marriage. Contraception and abortion by their nature prevent (or eliminate) children. Cohabitation and divorce damage the institution of marriage, which seems to be the best institution for producing and nurturing children. People opt to cohabit rather than marry, resulting in less stable relationships for bearing and rearing children: “fifty percent of cohabitations break down after just the first year,” Last reveals. Divorce depresses fertility because it cuts short the time couples have to produce children.

Last identifies a hodgepodge of other factors that have damaged fertility. His fourth chapter, titled “What You Can and Cannot Measure,” indicts baby car seats, condos, capitalism, and secularization. The history of car seats, which gets disproportionately long treatment from Last, presents a typical unintended consequence: a well-meaning attempt to make children safer instead made having a baby even more bureaucratic and expensive. After a young child died in a car accident, pediatricians pushed the federal government to create standards for child safety seats, though the product barely existed. Now, years later, car seats have expiration dates (like milk and eggs) and are required for newborns, toddlers, and even grade-schoolers. Last’s car seat reports are entertaining and remind us that even the most benevolent, seemingly family-friendly government action can damage fertility. But in the scheme of the chapter, the car seats discussion is a rather large detour from the more significant problems: Last devotes six pages to the history of car seats, compared to a two-page indictment of capitalism and three pages on secularization. 

In contrast to the car seat discussion, Last’s analysis of capitalism would have benefited from an expanded discussion. Last blames capitalism— although perhaps a better term is consumerism—for demographic decline. Capitalism makes us more focused on our individual desires, less concerned with the community, and therefore less willing to tolerate the inconveniences of children and a family. As we learn later in the book, however, demographic decline also results in economic stagnation, which is a bad thing according to Last. Fewer babies means, long term, fewer consumers. Here, Last would have done well to take a page from Tocqueville and his distinction between self-interest and self-interest rightly understood. Although consumerism may cause demographic decline, a further consequence of that decline is economic stagnation. So while capitalism may contribute to decline, it also suffers from it. Capitalism rightly understood would encourage baby-making. Last does not need to give capitalism three cheers, but two cheers and some gentle encouragement might help. Pro-family growth is pro-economic growth.

The problem of demographic decline is immense, the causes diverse, but Last’s policy solutions are disappointing: Social security reform, higher education reform, more roads, and telecommuting. Last admits that the “suggestions are, in the scheme of things, incongruously modest in their ambition.” Why? According to Last, there is no easy way to boost fertility. Government cannot help. Quite the opposite—most government programs have dampened fertility: car seats (which state laws and federal regulations required), Social Security, and the welfare state. The Soviet Union tried to entice women to have babies with motherhood medals. The French employed subsidies, day care, tax credits, and paternity and maternity leave, at great cost and with inconclusive results. (Singapore, on the other hand, has become “natalist utopia, where traditionalist beliefs are now embraced in ways conservative American natalists can only dream about.”) But beyond a certain point, there is no way to recover. Any solutions must be multigenerational to maintain a high fertility, and people cannot be bribed into having babies.

One would expect a book warning about the dangers of demographic collapse to be rife with references to the joys of children, but Last doesn’t deliver: “this book is not an attempt to convince you to have babies.” Babies are expensive, tiring, destroy your happiness, and force you to move to the suburbs. Last will not tell you children are great. But God will.

Religion is Last’s one glimmer of hope. “Religiosity,” Last explains, “winds up being an even better predictor of fertility than education or income. And as Americans become more secular, they’ve cut back on having children.” While Americans generally think that 2.5 is the ideal number of children, 41 percent of Americans who attend church weekly say that three or more children are ideal. Though many countries have tried myriad policies to improve fertility, only one country has succeeded: Georgia. The patriarch of the Georgia Orthodox Church pledged to baptize personally any child born to parents with two or more children, resulting in an unprecedented increase in birth rates. “There are many perfectly good reasons to have a baby,” Last explains, “but at the end of the day, there’s only one good reason to go through the trouble a second time: Because you believe, in some sense, that God wants you to.” It’s difficult to match God as motivator for children. Last tries, though: “if you believe in anything seriously enough—God, America, the liberal order, heck even secular humanism—then eventually babies will follow.” Still, Last is not optimistic that we can reverse the decline.

But compared to many other countries, America has time to think things through. We have the benefit of watching other countries try (and fail) to boost fertility rates. And, God help us, maybe we can learn from their mistakes.

Julia Shaw is a writer in Washington, D.C.