When I was young, one of the overarching dreads of our society was the imminent “population explosion” – the threat of humanity outstripping its planetary space and resources, a fear generated largely by Paul Erhlich’s seminal 1968 book The Population Bomb. Like global warming, we simply accepted Erhlich’s doomsday scenario as inevitable fact. But Jonathan Last, in his new book What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, claims that not only did the population bomb never explode, the world’s population will soon begin shrinking. The greatest threat to American life isn’t terrorism, he asserts, or China, or the crushing debt – it is our collective reluctance to have more children.
Last is a senior writer at the Weekly Standard. His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Salon, Slate, and many other publications. He is a regular commentator in the media and has appeared on ABC, CNN, Fox News, NPR and elsewhere. In his compelling short new book, Last explains why the population implosion happened and how it is remaking culture, the economy, and politics both at home and around the world.
Mark Tapson: Mr. Last, the subtitle of your book is “America’s Coming Demographic Disaster” – exactly what disaster are we facing?
Jonathan Last: Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies. Rivers and seas boiling. Forty years of darkness. Earthquakes, volcanoes, the dead rising from the grave. Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together. Mass hysteria. I’m just kidding – that’s the old Ghostbusters line.
What we’re really facing is this: as fertility rates fall, your population’s age profile inverts, so that you have more old people than young people, which destabilizes the Social Security and Medicare regimes. And then puts a drag on the economy, stunting innovation and dynamism. Also, it becomes harder to maintain your armed forces because of both the demands of the entitlement system and the skinnier cohort of military-aged men and women. So that’s the best-case scenario.
The worst-case is that you head toward social destabilization at home, which pits the generations against one another in a zero-sum game. A couple of weeks ago in Japan, for example, the country’s finance minister said that it was time for old Japanese folks to “hurry up and die.” And then you get geopolitical destabilization abroad, as the autocratic countries which are struggling with the same problems – China, Russia, Iran – undergo tumult.
MT: What’s the cause of this fertility collapse?
JL: There’s a whole constellation of factors: the decline in infant mortality; increasing urbanization; the sexual revolution; the expansion of college to middle- and lower-middle class Americans; the creation of Social Security and Medicare; the creation of no-fault divorce; the rise of cohabitation. This is a partial list.
MT: How have immigrants and women factored into this collapse?
JL: In America, immigrants are the only thing keeping us from careening off the demographic cliff that Asia and Europe have already hurled themselves over. But when you look at the fertility rates of recently-arrived immigrants to America, you find that over a few generations they begin to move quickly back toward the national average. The effects of our fertility-dampening culture are that powerful.
The migration of women into the workforce has made the two-income family nearly a requirement of middle-class life. Feminists don’t want to hear it, but it’s objectively true that education and workforce participation of women drive their fertility downward. There are lots of wonderful benefits to having a country full of educated, working women who have mastered their fertility planning. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t created demographic problems.
MT: We’re familiar with China’s official One Child Policy; tell us about America’s unofficial One Child Policy.
JL: Basically, modern life has evolved in such a way that middle-class Americans now have about the same number of children as the Chinese. It isn’t that we don’t want kids. We do. For 40 years, our average “ideal fertility” has been about 2.5. But there’s a yawning gap between the kids we want to have – 2.5, on average –and the kids we do have – 1.9, on average. The key is understanding all of the economic and cultural factors which cause people, in the real world, to have fewer kids than they want.
MT: How does this affect our national security?
JL: If Sweden or Japan have to fold up their militaries in order to pay for their entitlement programs, no one cares. If America does it, it’s a different story. And a big part of the fertility collapse is that defense becomes harder and harder to pay for and support.
And out there in the world, there are problem spots. Russia, China, and Iran are all likely to become increasingly unstable as they come to grips with their own fertility problems –which are way worse than ours, even. In an autocratic country, when the state runs into financial ruin, they don’t typically convene blue-ribbon commissions and have break-out sessions at the Brookings Institution.
Demographics suggest that one of our national security focuses for the next fifty years should be managing sudden instability from fertility-challenged powers.
MT: What should we be doing, and what shouldn’t we be doing?
JL: What we shouldn’t be doing is trying to lecture and preach at people who don’t want kids. There are plenty of perfectly rational reasons not to have babies and what we should say to the people who don’t want them is: Godspeed.
We also probably shouldn’t expect that we can have the government step in and adopt a bunch of pro-natalist policies, which solve the problem. A lot of research has been done on the efficacy of these things and it suggests that (1) natalist government spending only brings about returns at the margins of the fertility rate and (2) natalist government programs need to be in effect for decades in order to achieve even those modest returns. There probably aren’t any magic bullets.
So what should we do? No one really knows yet. But the guiding precept for all natalism should be about identifying the roadblocks standing between the people who want children and the families they find out of reach.
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