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Expecting the Unexpecting

Monday, March 25, 2013

Jonathan Last’s recent book gives an incisive analysis of the plummeting U.S. birth rate's key economic effects.

Waning American (and global) fertility is no longer the province of stat-heads, grumpy declinists, heralds of an Islamofascist dystopia, and fringe elements on the right and left, thanks in no small part to What to Expect When Nobody’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster, an enlightening, witty, well-researched book by Jonathan Last.

A longtime writer and editor for the Weekly Standard, Last vigorously applies his analytical shears to the thorny problem of plummeting birth rates in the United States, the Western world, and beyond, and clears the path for an incisive look at the key economic ramifications of the fertility drop.

In brief, Last attributes falling fertility rates to “the ubiquity of college, the delay of marriage, the birth control pill, car seat laws, religious participation, the rise of the thousand-dollar stroller, and Social Security.”

Money is, indeed, an enormous factor. Last estimates that it now costs over $1 million to raise a child when we account for the cost of college (about $150,000 for a four-year college, representing an astounding 1,000 percent spike over the last 35 years); estimates by the U.S. Department of Agriculture of the costs of medical care, primary education, clothing, and food (over $200,000); and some $824,000 in average foregone income for parents staying at home or working only part time.

In the author’s memorable turn of phrase, “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.’”

Culture and technology play key roles as well. Last offers a helpful history of the birth control pill — including its origins in the wacky, eugenicist recesses of Margaret Sanger’s mind — and its pivotal role in “shap[ing] the behaviors that lead to making babies: sex, dating, marriage, and, finally, stork arrival.” No one necessarily intended the pill to reduce the overall American fertility rate, but such a reduction ensued nonetheless.

Sadly, a majority of Americans surveyed want more children than they have.

“History unfolded in a certain way,” Last writes, “because of happenstance and the peculiar ambition of one or two people” like Sanger or Dr. Robert Sanders, who championed universal car-seat laws in the 1970s and 1980s. That development has immiserated the lives of many parents (this one included), who must constantly juggle space, money, and patience simply to keep up with the latest nanny-state regulations. Thanks to Sanders, the ever-expanding age limits for infant and “booster” seats mean a family with three young kids essentially must purchase a (costly) minivan or SUV to fit everyone comfortably in accordance with new regulations.
The advent of no-fault divorce and the prevalence of cohabitation have also contributed significantly to lower birthrates.

The consequences of the fertility drop, Last adroitly explains, are not trivial. As the population tree becomes inverted, fewer and fewer able-bodied adults in the workforce are supporting more and more retirees who will be living longer and longer. Both Social Security and Medicare “could also be saved if Americans started having more babies,” Last notes.

In addition, diminishing fertility means a dwindling military, but not just for the obvious reason that tax revenue will increasingly be diverted to funding retirement and elder-care programs. Families with fewer children will be less willing to sacrifice their progeny on a foreign battlefield. “The loss of a child,” Last writes, “will represent not just a tragedy, but in most cases, the end of the family line.”

Alas, other countries have it far worse than us. Last tells of East German towns where governments have converted birthing clinics to retirement homes and prostitutes have transitioned to geriatric nursing; of dwindling Japanese burgs that simply decided to close up shop, while, nationwide, adult diaper sales outstrip those of baby diapers; of Italy, where deaths outnumbered births in 2010; and of Russia where abortions now outnumber births by 30 percent.

Last often finds himself walking a fine line between respectfully observing the relationship between women’s fertility and their educational and career achievements on the one hand, and urging higher fertility on the other. This effort ranges from the awkwardly apologetic (“I’d like to offer a preemptive defense against readers who may take this book to be a criticism of the modern American woman. Nothing could be further from the truth.”) to the clangy (“The total fertility rate for American women without a high school degree is a healthy 2.45”). But such, alas, is the lay of the contemporary socio-political landscape.

Ultimately, the author proves himself an adept and sensitive wonk, able to jokingly deprecate himself as an “anti-abortion nut job who thinks that every embryo is sacred” and to winkingly castigate cohabiters as “heathen, fornicatin’ sinners!” Last skillfully deploys humor in launching his multi-pronged assault on an intractable problem about which many Americans — especially in the 18- to 35-year-old demographic — can often be quite defensive.

At times, though, Last’s analysis is a bit wanting, or at least leaves the reader wanting more.

He intriguingly argues at the beginning of the book that the advent of Social Security and Medicare “undermined the ancient rationale for childbearing,” as the elderly were cared for not by their children but by government. Worse, the high and often regressive taxes imposed by these massive government entitlement programs “have placed a serious and increasing burden on families, making it more difficult to afford the — also increasing — cost of children.” In short, Last argues, Social Security and Medicare “are now incentivizing couples to have fewer — or no — children,” suppressing the fertility rate, according to one study, by as much as 0.5 kids per mother. But Last doesn’t explore this fascinating link much further, leaving the reader to rely on some limited footnotes.

The advent of no-fault divorce and the prevalence of cohabitation have also contributed significantly to lower birthrates.

He also presents an interesting examination of the “youth bulge” in various Middle Eastern countries, but the treatment is too cursory to flesh out his bold claim that Iranian nuclear ambitions are not only driven but necessitated by the Islamic Republic’s potent, one-time fertility explosion.

Finally, while clever and creative, Last’s proposed solutions to the fertility decline — reforming Social Security and its noxious payroll tax, radically reconfiguring higher education, facilitating telecommuting, welcoming and better integrating more fertile immigrants, and restoring the place of faith in our culture — occupy a scant eight pages of the book. Perhaps in a follow-up book, Last could expound in more detail on how to fix the mess.

What to Expect concludes on both a sobering and a hopeful note. Sadly, a majority of Americans surveyed want more children than they have; their “ideal fertility” exceeds both their actual and expected fertility (how many children they anticipate having) by about half a kid. As they have for decades, most Americans desire exactly 2.5 children but only have around 2.0 kids on average.

On the one hand, it is deeply depressing that, for all the reasons Last articulates, we’re unable or unwilling to bear as many children as we would like. But on the other hand, our ideal fertility rate still exceeds that of many European countries. So in the end, the consolation Americans may take away from this important book is that, when it comes to birth rates, we are somewhat less doomed than the rest of the world.

Michael M. Rosen, a contributor to THE AMERICAN, is an attorney and writer in San Diego.

FURTHER READING: Michael M. Rosen also writes “The Real Problem with Government Employee Unions,” “Love, Happiness, and Other Things Money Can’t (Or At Least Shouldn’t) Buy,” and “Steal This F&$#ing Book!” Nicholas Eberstadt discusses “Fewer Babies, for Better or Worse” and “World Population Prospects and the Global Economic Outlook.”


Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group


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