What to Expect When No One’s Expecting

Mark Tapson, a Hollywood-based writer and screenwriter, is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center. He focuses on the politics of popular culture.


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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  • Rocco

    I lived in Germany for many years, and they have been grappling birth-replacement problems for decades. Government, doing what government does best, decided to fix the problem by giving people "Kindergeld" or kid money. Basically a stipend for having children. the more kids you have, the more money you get. The rest of Europe thought that was a great idea, and began similar programs. And the government program did what government programs do, and drew tens of thousands of Turks into Europe to be paid for having kids. The European women weren't that interested in having children in the first place. Too much of an inconvenience on the lifestyle, so the original intent was an epic fail. Now it's not just the Turks, but the worst dregs from every country in the world are going to Europe to have little baby pay checks. Unfortunately, a majority are coming from Muslim countries, with no intention of integrating into European societies. The road to hell truly is paved in good intentions…

    Europeans are dying off, as are all of the white people's world-wide. Hopefully the trend can be reversed.

    Thank you for a great interview Mr. Tapson.

    • Indioviejo

      If only they believe the gospels! Go forth and multiply is a sound policy. The Churches are empty, infanticide reigns, homosexuals are in the driver's seat, our educated youngsters are ignorant, truth is relative, and revelation is a myth. The barbarians are in the house and because of all of the above we can not defend our civilization. Therefore we go out with barely a whimper.

      • JacksonPearson

        "I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved"
        – (John 10:9, NIV).

        "Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it"
        –(Matthew 7:13, 14, NIV).

    • dizzy darza

      same thing is happening in America.

  • harrylies

    The Pope sets a bad example. He doesn't have kids.

    Women like working outside the home. Look at Sarah Palin. This is not the Fifties.

    The fewer children, the better. Some people invent a problem.

    • Mary Sue

      That all depends. People surely should not have more kids than they can support. But not having kids just on the basis of propaganda isn't good either.

    • JoJoJams

      "The fewer children, the better. Some people invent a problem. " ~
      Really? How so? And how is it "better" if a society cannot have enough children to perpetuate themselves, and eventually – and literally – die off as a society and culture? Blindness is one thing – willful blindness to statistcal reality regarding demographics is something else…

      • Questions

        Let's look at some numbers. In 1960, just prior to the rise of the supposedly Evil Counterculture, the U.S. population was 178 million. Currently, it's more than 310 million. So where did this myth of "childless" America come from? It doesn't manifest itself in numbers or in first-person contact; Every time I go to Bed Bath & Beyond, I see at least a couple baby strollers with real babies inside.

        An aside: How come some of the heaviest fire breathers on the Right who bray about an impending "demographic winter" don't have kids of their own? Think of Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh and Pat Buchanan. It's worth pondering for a while.

        • Mary Sue

          I am positive that Limbaugh (don't know about the others) has undiagnosed autistic spectrum disorder. I have found that people with that syndrome have specific issues that cause them to not want kids. Often these are sensory (cannot tolerate the sound of a crying baby, for instance), but sometimes there are other things in play (in Limbaugh's case I believe it is mostly career-driven, but this also I believe is related because radio is his "special interest"). So individually, one cannot fault Limbaugh for not having kids (and his brother David DOES have kids, so that's something). I don't believe Coulter is even married so why would she have kids out of wedlock? I don't think she believes in that! I can't remember if Buchanan is married but it's likely if he is his wife is simply infertile. That happens, you know.

    • Indioviejo

      You don't make sense. The Pope is the head of a Religion which has monks, nuns and priest dedicated to serving humanity, look at Mother Teresa as am example of what these people do. Church doctrine and the gospel mandates the loving couple to procreate as God's will. Sarah Palin a Christian woman of another denomination has five children while married to the same man she married as a young lady. She is a great example of what a strong and independent woman can achieve in Christ. So Evidently you find this wrong because you believe in infanticide. I fail to see what murdering babies benefits society at all, but I do see the immense damage done to the national conscience, morals and values. How can the people who call for murdering baby's in the womb can credibly say they oppose gun control because a leftist nut murdered 20- five years old? Every ill of society lays on you people.

    • Guest

      No need to invent a crisis. It is real. The fewer earners you have the less revenue available for social security. Of course, no one ever said humans were meant to be taken care of by the government.

      Where I see the arthor totally missed his mark is making the ludicrous comment that immigrants have saved us. Study after study has shown they are a drag on our exo only. The real tragedy is that the worst of us populate most aggressively.

      Yeats said it best, "the worst among us are full of passionate intensity while the best lack all conviction." People, especially whites, have been taught they can have anything and give up or lose nothing in the exchange. We are importing a third world to America. What do third world people want to escape the third world? What will they do when America becomes the third world?

      • Kat

        I think what the author said about immigrants is that western thinking has turned them away from their native views on childbirth. Not that they have saved us.

  • Mary Sue

    Back in my day we were shown films in school such as Future Shock (a Documentary about the book by Alvin Toffler) and the stuff put out by the Club of Rome. Children have been brainwashed since Paul Ehrlich into believing that the world is overpopulated, and that they, here in North America, must stop contributing to it by either having no kids, or maybe one or two. You'd be surprised how many people rationalize "it's cruel to bring a child into the world the way things are going now" or "a baby would just be a huge carbon footprint that the planet doesn't need" or just flat out "a baby pollutes too much".

    That said, people who viscerally truly and honestly DO NOT want kids, should NEVER have kids. Ever. Any person that's self-aware enough to surmise that they'd be a terrible parent should be congratulated for recognizing the fact.

  • slonker

    Jews have worked long and hard to remove the restrictions which prevented non White immigration to the White countries. Now Jews are finding life difficult in the previously White majority countries – some of the third worlders streaming in dont like Jews. In hindsight perhaps the Jewish plan to get rid of the White countries wasnt such a great idea. Jews arent very good at accepting blame for anything, lm sure theyll find a scapegoat lol.
    Kevin MacDonald: Jewish Involvement in Influencing United States Immigration Policy Kevin MacDonald http://whitelocust.wordpress.com/jewish-involveme

    • http://www.israelolivetree.org Susan Warner

      Blaming Jews for demographic problems in white majority countries is the epitome of Anti-Semitism.
      Why not Blame Swedes or French for their immigration policies which have allowed those Anti-Semitic cultures to self destruct through Islamic immigration. It is hard to wrap intelligent thoughts around such deep seated Anti-Semitism. Arghh!

    • Indioviejo

      What an irrational theory, wanker.

    • Guest

      Unfortunately, this is very true. As a matter of fact the SPLC lists Vdare as a hate site simply because they advocate for rolling back immigration legal and illegal. This organization is so powerful the government uses their data to decide who should and should not be on watch lists. Go to the SPLC yourself and find out. The Jewish people in their own homeland have taken measures to stop the take over of their country. I don't disagree with Israel's policy in that regard. I simply feel we should have the same opportunity.

      Ultimately, the Jewish behavior in our country will be to their own demise. There is no need to seek for a white Christian monster hiding under the bed when you are importing thousands of Muslims and blacks who don't appreciate the fact that Jewish civil rights groups have stood up for them. I think Mr. Horowitz has experienced some of this himself.

    • Mary Sue

      "Jewish" involvement? Try LEFTIST involvement, the Jewishness has nothing to do with it!

    • Western Canadian

      slonker is a moron, wandered in from hufpo no doubt.

    • Ghostwriter

      Nice,slonker. Next thing you know,you'll be quoting "Mein Kampf" on this site.

  • cynthia curran

    by Paul Erhlich’s seminal 1968 book The Population Bomb. Like global warming, we simply Believe it or not Erhlich is against all the legal and illegal immirgation that the Democratic Party is pushing. In fact the enviromental left was bribe to not talk about how population growth is effective by imirgaiton. I agree, I prefer the native born population giving birth than the illegal foreign born . The illegal foreign born giving birth leads to more welfare. People that oppose Paul Erhlich on population usually like lots of legal and illegal immirgation to take away jobs from the native born, Joel Konlkin comes to mind.

  • antisharia

    To me, there are far greater problems in the world. I grew up in a large family, I'm the third of 5 children, and belive me there was nothing great about it. Try having 7 people share one bathroom. It really boils down to this: Women are having fewer children because, for the most part, they want fewer children. Even if the economics allowed for one income families and more women became stay at home moms the birth rate would still be where it is. This just isn't in developed nations it's world wide. Muslim and Sub Sahran nations also have rapidly falling birth rates. I know this will put me in the minority but it's not something that I can get that worked up about.

  • Murray

    I'm surprised no one mentions explicitly the obvious. A free capital market promotes a large rich middle class, the notions that a healthy nuclear family is the brick in a strong social edifice, and lots and lots of kids. Socialism, fascism, Islam are a demographic dead end despite government social engineering. This is common sense and historical fact.

    • Guest

      I think it makes it easier to accomplish that goal but it is not a big factor. Evidence, both my grandparents families were very large. They both lived in Mississippi during the depression and were sharecroppers. This is definately not middle class. They simply made the decision that they wanted a large family because farm life demanded plenty of workers. They did not intend to accumulate lots of possessions. People now days are taught the more toys they have the better off they are. Women are taught that staying at home being a good mother and raising a strong generation is being lazy or not living up to their potential. Just imagine the ignorance of that. Is raising up a strong sound generation not one of the most important functions of human life?

  • rbla

    As an environmentalist I believed that it was a good thing that Americans and Europeans have decided to cut down on their population growth. There was a time when population growth was an important concern of the environmental movement. BUT the problem began when the source of massive growth in population shifted to the non-White third world. Suddenly discussion of the issue ended. The enviro-hypocrites declared it politically incorrect; they now support making the developed world a dumping ground for the excess population of countries that refuse to deal with their own problems. The super-hypocrites of the Sierra Club sold themselves to a pro-immigration billionaire and have outlawed discussion of immigration. Since this is the case I now support Whites having many children.

    • Indioviejo

      Just as long as you contain your support to donating and volunteering for the groups that represent you, you are within your rights. Any attempt to engineer demographics will place you back there with the Margaret Sangers, the Bernard Shaws, the Adolph Hitlers, and so many enlightened folk who revisit the problem from time to time.

      • rbla

        I'm not interested in engineering demographics; simply in reducing immigration.

    • Western Canadian

      You are not an environmentalist, you are a shabbily educated and ignorant jerk. Another troll from hufpo and similar ignorance based sites.

      • rbla

        I am impressed by your reasoned and compelling arguments. Your great intellect and eloquence of language as you skillfully reply to your opponents is an inspiration to us all.

  • RAH

    My professors gave me The population Bomb as received wisdom in 1969, with predictions of depleted resources, starvation and food riots in the US by the 190s. I made the decision not to bring kids into the world. I’ve never believed a progressive since. I will link to this from my Old Jarhead blog. (www.tartanmarine.blogspot.com)

    Robert A. Hall
    USMC 1964-68
    USMCR, 1977-83
    Massachusetts Senate, 1973-83
    Author: The Coming Collapse of the American Republic
    All royalties go to help wounded veterans
    For a free PDF of my 80-page book, write tartanmarine(at)gmail.com

  • Loyal Achates

    It's scary. Did you know the earth is down to its last 7 billion people?

    • Mary Sue

      yeah but those billions in china won't be paying for YOUR social security. You'll be paying them for them doing you the courtesy of LOANING the money to you.

  • Jack Moore

    what result would you expect from a culture that promotes a vacant womb and same-sex marriage?

    • Mary Sue

      Not that same sex couples can't hijack nature and science (or at least adoption) these days…

  • Barakus abomidas

    My plan is to diversify america (just enough) to make it all brown. ;) Plan working out well i must say. B.H.O.

  • Sophia McGibbons

    People are not "having the children they want" because the globalists work against them with the bombarding of hormone disrupting chemicals ingested on a daily basis.
    Not to mention GMO soy ,canola, aspartame, MSG (spices on food label) are in EVERYTHING!
    There is an agenda to depopulate the planet so they can have it for themselves! Why else do you think the FDA allows BPA in things when groups like the EWG have lobbied against it? Melamine is ok as a food additive? Monsanto's roundup is found in the urine of everyone, even unborn babies, Gates killing babies with vaccinations? What? Why? ALL these things are not coincidence!!
    When will we notice that things are not as they seem and stop drinking that fluoride? This is all intentional! Cellphones causing brain cancer and killing young people producers, pro "choice" agenda is to get rid of more babies, more miscarriages being caused by constant diet of GMOs and people saying "if it hurt us they wouldn't sell it to us". Unless maybe the plan was to hurt you. Educate before you vaccinate too!

    • Mary Sue

      No, you're being paranoid. Women are going on the Pill. That's all that's needed. Then that gets into the water and feminizes the men. All that other stuff you mentioned is neither relevant nor even scientifically plausible.

      I think you need a trip to http://www.snopes.com to clear out some of these crazy misconceptions you're spewing in abject ignorance.

  • John Stone

    Google "population growth map" if you want to know what is going on. The core hokum has always been that population growth was a global issue and it is not. It is local to region or country.

  • Kat

    I agree that people who don't WANT cildren shouldn't have them. But if those same people engage in intercourse and become pregnant, they should realize that there are plenty of people, capable of supporting and loving a child, who would love to raise them. Abortion is as big a contributor to this problem as people limiting their fertility.

    How many couples discuss their desires for a family before marrying? How many wives or husband submit themselves to the ideas of the other who doesn't want more children? I believe there are plenty of women who would love a large family and plenty of men who feel the same way. They just don't always end up together because people base their decision to marry on emotions or physical attraction instead of on serious areas of commonality.

  • abprosper

    There ain't no such thing as a free lunch you know. Urbaniation has supressed population growth since the begining of cities.

    The modern situation is not at all complicated Dad works, Mom works ,people live in cities, less kids.

    The benefical cycle was "cheap land + high wages+ more kids" now do to immigration, urbanization ,globalization , real estate speculation , a hatred of good wages and so on, we have the opposite, "expensive housing with lower wages" you get exactly what you'd expect fewer children

    Also some here may not understand how bad it is., that a great many young people (as many as half in some Western countries) are unemployed and as many as 3/4 are underemployed. The 1st can't afford kids period, the second can but maybe they simply don't want as many since the poorer you are the worse kids make your life.

    In fact I'd argue that its a testament to how much people love kids that our birth rate isn't lke that of Singapore (1/3 replacement)

    Whats got folks all in an uproar is that the social pressure tools used to get people to have kids at a lower income level than they should are breaking down, birth control is cheap, religion is ignored and fewer people have large families. Now things must be paid for.

    Wage pressure in the West is considerable in the US for example it now takes two people to earn the same economic percentage in wages and adjusted standard of living that one did in the Early 1970's.

    Its nt a moral issue, not at all but a wealth distribution one. Decently productive and educated people want a bigger chunk of the econonomy and if they can't get it, will have less kids.

    You certainly can bring in foreigners, for a couple of generations, they'll settle for less but soon enough they'll replace you or become you. In the US forexample, Hispanic birth rates have dropped like a stone and globally much of the world is reaching subreplacment fertility

    You can't win the race

    The answer is simple, distrbute or die out. Choose one but choose wisely as you only get one pick.