WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN NO ONE’S EXPECTING: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster — by Jonathan V. Last — Encounter Books — February 2013 —Hardcover: 230 pages — ISBN 978-1-59403-641-5
As someone who has been told practically his whole life that there are too many people already, I find Jonathan Last’s new book a refreshing change of perspective.
Basically he’s saying that all those other threats to our existence—nuclear war, asteroid impacts, Jerry Springer—pale in comparison with falling fertility rates, which are a slow-motion disaster that necessarily takes decades to run its course but which is nevertheless just as deadly.
More Babies, Not Fewer?
Fertility rates, of necessity, are determined statistically, prompting a personal aside. I have always had reservations about statistics, not as a mathematical system per se but the nefarious ends to which it has been applied. Mark Twain’s famous remark about statistics was well founded, as is the view that figures can’t lie but liars can figure. I’m not saying that I mistrust Mr. Last—I’m sure he’s operating in good faith—but that in compiling his book he has unavoidably had to resort to statistical analyses originating with far from reliable sources, the United Nations in particular. Moreover, applying mathematics to sociological phenomena allows for far too much subjectivity in interpreting results—i.e., you can count the frogs, but you can’t be sure which way they’ll jump.
With that reservation in mind, I found Mr. Last’s premise compelling. Unless, he says, we—and “we” is all-inclusive, involving just about every nation on the planet—change our attitudes and social structures to encourage more baby-making, the jig is pretty much up.
In other words, the very societies that nearly every country has struggled to establish could well be their undoing. Essentially, he says, we’re the victims of our own success. What we have hitherto considered to be unalloyed positive developments—higher education, “therapeutic” birth control, cohabitation without commitment, a decline in religious superstition, among others—all have resulted in a steady world-wide fall in the rate of baby making.
And that, demographers say, could almost certainly result in species suicide. As the Total Fertility Rate (TFR) has persistently fallen below the magic number of 2.1 babies per woman’s lifetime almost worldwide, the outlook is grim.
But, you might object, hasn’t the United Nations with much ballyhoo just informed us of the birth of the seven billionth person on The Big Blue Marble? The explanation of why population has gone up despite a decline in the fertility rate can be compared to an accelerating automobile that blows its engine: For a little while, it will continue to accelerate but then start to gradually slow until it comes to a full stop. The blown engine here is a crashing TFR; the inevitable result, a population implosion, takes time to show up, but it will eventually.
Along the way, Mr. Last entertainingly shows us how cultures past and present have dealt with declining fertility rates, almost universally badly. A few: Caesar’s tax on aristocratic bachelors, abortion in Japan (insisted upon by the occupying Americans), China’s One-Child policy (which has backfired), Europe’s open borders multiculturalism (which they have lived to regret), Stalin’s Motherhood Medals (a hopeless attempt to replace 25 million lost in the war), the rise of the parasaito shinguru (Japan’s pathological social response to over-education), the car seat craze, and many others.
Mr. Last must be a good writer because he takes the pain out of statistics while making it comprehensible. What to Expect When No One’s Expecting is worth your time, and you can buy it here. Mike D’Virgilio’s related TAC article is here.
Introduction: One Child for All!
“Why should we care? . . . The short answer is that sub-replacement fertility rates eventually lead to a shrinking of population—and throughout recorded human history, declining populations have always followed or been followed by Very Bad Things. Disease. War. Economic stagnation or collapse. And these grim tidings from history may be in our future, since population contraction is where most of the world is headed.”
Chapter One: America’s Falling Fertility
“. . . there is something about modernity itself that tends toward fewer children.”
Chapter Two: The Roots of One-Child
“It is commonly said that buying a house is the biggest purchase most Americans will ever make. Well, having a baby is like buying six houses, all at once. Except you can’t sell your children, they never appreciate in value, and there’s a good chance that, somewhere around age 16, they’ll announce: ‘I hate you’.”
“. . . the soaring cost of childbearing has created a gargantuan societal maladaptation: Children have gone from being a marker of economic success to a barrier to economic success.”
Chapter Three: SEX! (and maybe marriage)
“The Pill’s effect on fertility, however, is not just on the literal act of contraception. It has also shaped the behaviors that lead to making babies: sex, dating, marriage, and, finally, stork arrival.”
“As William Galston puckishly notes, you only have to do three things to avoid poverty in America: (1) finish high school; (2) marry before you have a kid; and (3) don’t have the kid until after you turn 20. Check off those boxes, and the rest of life generally takes care of itself.”
Chapter Four: What You Can, and Cannot, Measure
“Today the number of children people have declines as their level of economic, financial, and social achievement rises. The bearing and raising of children has largely become the province of the lower classes.”
“Of all the evolutions in twentieth-century America, the most consequential might be the exodus of religion from the public square.”
Chapter Five: Very Bad Things
“But there is another school of thought, which explains our falling fertility as something more than the mere consequence of economic change. This school believes low fertility is the result of modernity itself and represents the next evolution in human society. And these demographers see this evolution as a good thing. A very good thing, indeed.”
“But what we can be relatively certain about is that the sunny view of our sub-replacement future—a happy, ecologically pure, multiracial, morally tolerant, peaceful and prosperous utopia in which the whole world looks like Seattle writ very large—is a mirage.”
Chapter Six: The Bright Side
“At the crudest level, the real explanation for why people no longer have babies is this: They don’t want to.”
Chapter Seven: Domestic Politics, Foreign Policy
“Changes in fertility have altered the fundamental dynamics of American politics.”
“Empire is Iran’s most logical path to salvation. . . . When you game it out, Iran would be foolish not to try for nuclear weapons. Its fertility rate and economic reality practically demand it.”
“Consider that for a moment: Russians are so despondent about the future that they have 30 percent more abortions than births. This might be the most grisly statistic the world has ever seen. It suggests a society that no longer has the will to live.”
Chapter Eight: Losing Battles (What Not to Do)
“In this light, Europe’s unseriousness about reversing its demographic decline looks less like perfidy and more like grim resignation.”
Chapter Nine: How to Make Babies
“But fertility trends have the turning radius of a battleship, not a go-Kart.”
“As I’ve tried to show, America’s fertility decline was not caused by a grand conspiracy to eviscerate the family. Rather it’s been the result of a thousand evolutions in modern life.”
Acknowledgments [3 pages]
Notes [44 pages]
Index [9 pages]