What to Expect
When No One’s Expecting:
America’s Coming
Demographic Disaster
By Jonathan V. Last
Encounter Books, 200 pages

Starting with the three subjects your parents told you not to discuss in polite company—politics, sex, and religion—and going from there, one cannot easily have a conversation about America’s low birth rate without saying something provocative about taxes, entitlements, immigration, climate change, abortion, contraception, assisted reproduction, and gender norms, not to mention health-care reform, end-of-life medical care, gay marriage, education, and national security.

It is into this minefield that Jonathan V. Last steps bravely, or perhaps foolhardily, with What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster. Last, a senior writer at the Weekly Standard, reports that since 1960, the U.S. fertility rate—the average number of children a woman is expected to bear over the course of her reproductive years—has dropped by almost half, from 3.7 to 1.9. There are now four times as many pets as children in the United States. As birth rates fall and Baby Boomers retire en masse, by 2050, the age structure of the country as a whole will resemble that of Florida’s today.

The situation is much worse elsewhere. The Golden Number of fertility is 2.1; that is the average number of children each woman must bear to keep a country’s population steady. All First World countries are below this replacement rate. But many countries, such as Japan and Italy, are far below. Each has a fertility rate of about 1.4, and each is beginning a population contraction. Without significantly increased immigration, Italy’s population will decline by 86 percent by the end of the century. “With only-children the rule,” Last writes, “the average person in Japan and Italy will soon have no brothers, sisters, aunts, or uncles.” In 2011, the Japanese purchased more diapers for adults than for babies.

The situation in the United States is not yet quite so dire, but it is bad enough. The most immediate consequence of our new demographics is by now well known: the looming insolvency of government entitlement programs. Social Security is not in the worst shape, but it is an apt example for its misleading name: Unlike the real security provided by a retirement savings plan, Social Security funds retirees through money funneled directly away from existing workers—on the promise that when they retire, they will receive benefits out of the paychecks of future workers, and so on.

But the baby bust is breaking this promise. In 1950, there were 16.5 workers supporting each Social Security retiree. By 2010, with the demographic shift, the number had dropped to 2.9, meaning each worker was supporting over five times as many retirees. The situation for Medicare is worse. “By 2040,” Last reports, “it’s predicted that each Baby Boomer retiree will eat up $17,156 per year” in Medicare benefits; and that money to each retiree will come from only two workers.

How did we end up here? The pill and legalized abortion have played a role, of course. So have the rise of women in the workplace, the proliferation of college education for women as well as men, and declining religiosity and church attendance, all of which contribute to delayed and reduced childbearing. So, too, have later marriages, rising rates of divorce and cohabitation, and a decline in the number of children people report that they want to have.

The descriptions of these factors are enough to set the heart of a culture warrior a-throbbing, but Last’s aim is reportorial, and each of the trends he identifies he backs with carefully documented statistics. Some are much more significant than others. For example, the difference in the fertility rate for American women with graduate degrees versus those without a high school diploma is a striking 0.85 children. Although Last acknowledges that he is “one of those anti-abortion nut jobs,” he also notes that the effect on fertility of widely available abortion is relatively small: A RAND Corporation study estimates that it has lowered the fertility rate by only about 0.08 among white women—although the effect among black women is significantly higher, at 0.34.

Other causes of our fertility decline are less politically contentious. Families have been moving into smaller, attached homes, a trend which has the rather strong effect of suppressing fertility. Last also notes that rapidly declining childhood mortality over the past century has contributed to lower fertility, as couples need to make fewer babies to guarantee some children will reach adulthood. The life of each child has thus also come to be seen as more precious and fragile—more valuable, in a sense, even as children have become less of a necessary financial investment and a literally homemade workforce and more of a costly luxury good.

Most of the elevated costs of raising children are, of course, well intentioned. Stringent safety laws have arisen over the last few decades that require parents to purchase expensive car seats. And because car seats are steadily becoming required for children at higher and higher ages, families with more than a few children, who might otherwise get by with a sedan or a station wagon (that forgotten family fashion accessory) are instead effectively required by law to own minivans. “While the car seat is objectively pro-child, it is also vaguely anti-family,” Last concludes.

Combine these safety laws with the array of other rapidly rising costs of raising a child, and America has what Last dubs an unofficial “One-Child Policy.” Last calculates that, between normal child-rearing expenses, lost wages, and a degree from four-year public college—and without paid child care—a typical middle-class family raising a single child should expect to lose $1.1 million. Compare this with the 2008 median home price of $180,100, and “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.’?”

Last emphasizes that many of the developments that have contributed to lower fertility are certainly good in themselves—most obviously, the decline of childhood mortality. So, too, is the rise of college completion and workplace participation for women. He carefully notes that pointing out these effects “is not to argue that women should be barefoot, pregnant, and waiting at home for their husbands every night with a cocktail and a smile.” So no angry letters, please.

Yet it is difficult to avoid the implications of this book on the most contentious political issues and deep-seated cultural divides of the day. The 2012 election was instructive. Whereas Mitt Romney ran on a platform of—well, whatever it was he ran on—President Obama’s reelection campaign contained three basic planks, each a mix of policy and symbolic red meat: maintaining the current entitlement system, increasing taxes on the wealthy, and finally, fighting back in the War on Women. Regardless of whether one personally aligns with the Allies or the Axis in that fabled struggle, it ought to be possible to recognize a certain tension in the government making birth control a right so fundamental that it merits legally mandated subsidies at the same time that it struggles to preserve social programs whose looming insolvency is owed in no small part to declining birth rates.

As Last shows, central to the declining fertility that threatens Social Security and Medicare are, in fact, Social Security and Medicare themselves:

There were two larger consequences of establishing government-funded programs for care of the elderly. The first was that children were no longer needed to look after their retired parents. Where people’s offspring had for centuries seen to the financial needs of their parents, retired people with no offspring now had access to a set of comparable benefits.?.?.?.?

This new system undermined the ancient rationale for childbearing. In a world in which childbearing has no practical benefit?.?.?.?people have babies because they want to, seeing it as either an act of self-fulfillment or as some kind of moral imperative.

This shift could be seen as government in some sense leveling the playing field, creating a social structure in which the choices to have or not have children are put on equal footing. But the system goes well beyond this. These programs, which are meant primarily to protect the working classes, in fact come at the expense of the working classes during their working years—especially Social Security, which regressively taxes only the first portion of income (up to $113,700 as of 2013).

The entitlements have effectively become a tax on making and raising families. A current worker, moreover, will receive his eventual retirement benefits not out of his own earnings, but out of the earnings of the next generation of workers, who are created by the parents of this generation. Those huge sums of money invested in raising a child will likely result in future earnings when the child enters the workforce—but an ever increasing share of those earnings will go to pay for the retirements of people who had no children. “Just as welfare at some point ceased to be a safety net and became a disincentive to work, Social Security and Medicare are no longer stopgaps to protect elderly pensioners on the verge of poverty,” Last writes. “Those programs are now incentivizing couples to have fewer—or no—children.” 

Of course, the news of declining fertility and declining population will be welcome in some quarters. As Last details, there is a long history of fear about the effects of overpopulation, dating back to Thomas Malthus in the late 18th century and repopularized by Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb. For those who subscribe to these views, the rise of people comes at the expense of the natural world, including the depletion of the limited resources on which humanity depends. These ideas have been influential enough that even for people who are wary of the darkest doomsday prophecies, there may be a lingering sense that growth is a zero- or negative-sum enterprise, with the gains of some people coming at the expense of others. 

The most important lesson in Last’s book is that, at least when it comes to human well-being, the reality is the other way around. Human prosperity requires more people, not fewer, because, “as the work of economist Ester Boserup made clear a century ago, innovation is a by-product of increasing population.” Perhaps the best illustration of the link between population and innovation is that the global income per capita has actually increased steadily and dramatically throughout history along with population growth, and not just for the highest earners. 

As long as we are trying to save these social programs, which are both cause and casualty of declining fertility rates, we might as well try to convert them into allies in that struggle by diminishing or reversing their negative-feedback effects. This is perhaps the most promising of the many possible remedies Last discusses. 

Looking to other countries’ attempts at pro-natalist policies, Last concludes that “the government cannot get people to have children they do not want. However, it can help people have the children they do want.” This means, in effect: Don’t try to create payments or other incentives for people to have children. Other countries have found that it won’t work. But success might come from removing as many barriers as possible for those who do want children. Last details several ways that Social Security and the tax code could be reformed to reduce or reverse the disincentives on couples to have children. 

Broader natalist policies could offer some genuine common ground between the left and the right. Liberals and conservatives could each see reason to support, for example, long periods of paid maternity leave, as supporting both women and families. For Social Security, perhaps a similar consensus could arise on lifting the income cap while lowering overall rates, or on creating dependent exemptions similar to those on the income tax.

The liberal emphasis on supporting the vulnerable and struggling should be easier for conservatives to join when that struggling might eventually boost rather than drain the economy. And the conservative emphasis on families and children might become more palatable to liberals when they can recognize that providing for the old, the poor, and the weak depends on the income supplied by a large working population and the innovation fostered by a growing one. 

Last’s tightly argued and deftly navigated tour through perhaps the most important social transition in modern history is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the need for innovation in social policy. The fight over the meaning of that transition, as with every other front in the culture war, is usually waged first on the territory of the past. For many conservatives, the turn away from creating new generations is a backward-looking embrace of, as Ross Douthat has put it, “stagnation over innovation.” It is a rejection of the inventions and works and new ways of being that could be brought about—and, most importantly, of the people who could create and enjoy them. But for many liberals, conservatives’ concern over declining fertility is as sure a picture as there could be of their desire to turn our society back to a sexist past. 

Last concludes that the shifts brought by modernity cannot be fundamentally turned back, and in most cases we shouldn’t want them to be anyway. But appreciating these achievements does not mean we cannot acknowledge their costs and consequences, and the constant social renewal that is required to maintain them. The left and the right will never agree on an ideal economic structure. But if they can at least come to agree that providing for people requires people, then perhaps there will by necessity end up being a little more common ground than there is today about how overall economic innovation and individual economic security can be made not to starve but sustain each other.

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