Last’s What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster


Jason Collins


July 18, 2016

I’ve recently read a couple of books on demographic trends, and there don’t seem to be a lot of silver linings in current fertility patterns in the developed world. The demographic boat takes a long time to turn around, so many short-term outcomes are already baked in.

Despite the less than uplifting subject, Jonathan Last’s What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster is entertaining - in some ways it is a data filled rant.

Last doesn’t see much upside to the low fertility in most of the developed world. Depopulation is generally associated with economic decline. He sees China’s One Child Policy - rather than saving them - as leading them down the path to demographic disaster. Poland needs a 300% increase in fertility just to hold population stable to 2100. The Russians are driving toward demographic suicide. In Germany they are converting prostitutes into elderly care nurses. Parts of Japan are now depopulated marginal land.

And Last sees little hope of a future increase (I have some views on that). He rightly lampoons the United Nations as having no idea. At the time of writing the book, the United Nations optimistically assumed all developed countries would have their fertility rate increase to the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman (although the United Nations has somewhat - but not completely - tempered this optimism via its latest methodology). There was no basis for this assumption, and the United Nations is effectively forecasting blind.

So why the decline? Last is careful to point out that the world is so complicated that it is not clear what happens if you try to change one factor. But he points to several causes.

First, children used to be an insurance policy. If you wanted care in your old age, your children provided it. With government now doing the caring, having children is consumption. Last points to one estimate that social security and medicare in the United States suppresses the fertility rate by 0.5 children per woman (following the citation trail, here’s one source for that claim).

Then there is the pill, which Last classifies as a major backfire for Margaret Sanger. She willed it into existence to stop the middle classes shouldering the burden of the poor, but the middle class have used it more.

Next is government policy. As one example, Last goes on a rant about child car seat requirements (which I feel acutely). It is impossible to fit more than 2 car seats in a car, meaning that transporting a family of five requires an upgrade. This is one of many subtle but real barriers to large family size.

Finally (at least of those factors I’ll mention), there is the cost of children today. Last considers that poorer families are poorer because they chose to have more children, or as Last puts it, “Children have gone from being a marker of economic success to a barrier to economic success.” Talk about maladaptation. (In the preface to the version I read, Last asked why feminists were expending so much effort demanding right to be child free and not railing against the free market for failing women who want children.)

The fertility decline isn’t just a case of people wanting fewer children, as - on average - people fall short of their ideal number of kids. In the UK, the ideal is 2.5, expected is 2.3, actual 1.9. If people could just realise their target number of children, fertility would be higher.

But this average hides some skew - less educated people end up with more than is ideal, educated people end up with way less. By helping the more educated reach their ideal, the dividend could be large.

So what should government do? Last dedicates a good part of the book to the massive catalogue of failures of government policy to boost birth rates. The Soviet Union’s motherhood medals and lump sum payments didn’t stop the decline. Japan’s monthly per child subsidies, daycare centres and paternal leave (plus another half dozen pro-natalist policies Last lists) had little effect. Singapore initially encouraged the decline, but when they changed their minds and started offering tax breaks and other perks for larger families, fertility kept on declining.

This suggests that you cannot bribe people into having babies. As Last points out, having kids is no fun and people aren’t stupid.

Then there is the impossibility of using migration to fill the gap. To keep the United States support ratio (retirees per worker) where it currently is (assuming you wanted to do this), the US would need to add 45 million immigrants between 2025 and 2035. The US would need 10.8 million a year until 2050 to get the ratio somewhere near what it was in 1960. Immigration is not as good for demographic profile as baby making and comes with other problems. Plus the sources of immigrants are going through own transition, so at some point that supply of young immigrants will dry up.

So, if government can’t make people have children they don’t want and can’t simply ship them in, Last asks if they could help people get the children they do want. As children go on to be taxpayers, Last argues government could cut social security taxes for those with more children and make people without children pay for what they’re not supporting. (Although you’d want to make sure there was no net burden of those children across their lives, as they’ll be old people one day too. There are limits to how far you could take that Ponzi scheme.)

Last also suggests eliminating the need for college, one of the major expenses of children. Allowing IQ testing for jobs would be one small step toward this.

Put together, I’m not optimistic much can be done, but Last is right in that there should be some exploration of removing unnecessary barriers (let’s start with those car seat rules).

I’ll close this post where Last closes the book. In a world where the goal is taken to be pleasure, children will never be attractive. So how much of the fertility decline is because modernity has turned us into unserious people?