The problem with people is that when you are around them, you wish there were less of them; but when you are alone, you wish there were more people around.
Such is the conundrum of society.
To draw this out into a much larger picture, when you live in a large American city, you do not notice that absence of a particular age demographic such as children under 15, or wonder why there are not more of them around. Yet when you live in a small community, the absence of children is a reality that you see daily. Now combine these realities, and you all of a sudden have the concept of What to Expect When No One’s Expecting by Jonathan Last.
I find myself a lot in this book, and that may or may not be a good thing. But when I lived in New York City, you never would have been able to convince me that the population of the city, let alone the country, was actually in dire circumstances because of a low fertility rate. Now that I live in a small town in western Kansas, I see what he means. It is still hard to wrap my head around the gravity of the situation, but this book does a great deal in helping with that problem.
Last’s book is incredibly detailed, but yet is a very simple and quick read. He does not bog one down in numbers, and provides ample real time examples of what is happening both in the United States and what is happening worldwide in terms of declining populations directly related to low birthrates. Surprisingly, the problem is not limited, as many assume to Europe and Russia, it extends to all countries, including countries that would seemingly not be affected such as China and Iran.
For the purpose of this post, I will limit my review to the United States, in which Last points to a large number of issues that have contributed to the decline in the birthrate, even showing how far back the problem really goes. The truth is that the easy access of birth control and abortion has not helped, but they are hardly the only issue. Urbanization, house size, finances, education, car safety and even strollers have all contributed to the issue in both positive and negative ways.
The bad news, which Last details in various places throughout the book, is that the birthrate is so low that the massive entitlement state that has been created, particularly social security and health care, will not be able to be sustained in their current states. There will just simply not be enough people working to pay the bills for those who are retired.
Last does include some good news, the birthrate is not set in stone, it can go up, even if the evidence would seemingly deny it. He also points out that the United States is the recipient of massive immigration, which helps soften the effects of the native population not reproducing on its own.
While he does not approach this issue from a religious aspect by any means, Last does provide statistics that show that those who regularly attend worship are more likely to have more children, as opposed to those who are more secular. That provides at least some hope at the end of the tunnel that conceivably, those hostile to religion will be weeded out over time by their own refusal to procreate, although that time could be another century.
Two points where I think Last comes up short is that he never mentions overseas adoption and its effect on the U.S. population. Granted, these are not live births in the United States, but many come over quite young, and they do add young, warm bodies to the population. In fairness, I do not know that the exact adoption numbers are, and they very well may be negligible.
The second point is what Last is aiming for. The golden number of children which holds the line on population is 2, which is the replacement rate. That is a nice number, but it hardly solves the problem; to offset some 2 generations of a declining birthrate, a couple would need 2 to replace themselves, and then every child after that is growing the population, or in this case, replacing those who have not been replaced. But for Last, the number is 2, which at this point is probably more realistic then everyone going from below the replacement level to six kids apiece.
Last makes some suggestions on helping the birthrate, but he is careful to warn that there are a lot of unintended consequences that cannot be accounted for, and may not even be known until perhaps years later. Although it would require a massive change in the system, I particularly like his ideas regarding the college system.
The bottom line however, is that the government cannot make people get married, or have more children, they need to want to do it themselves. You cannot legislate the birthrate of a nation; although recent political events indicate that the politicians would not be able to agree on it even if they could.
They scariest part of the book, is that some people are just content to not have kids; and nothing is going to change their minds.