- Hardcover: 240 pages
- Publisher: Encounter Books; 1st edition (February 5, 2013)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1594036411
- ISBN-13: 978-1594036415
- Product Dimensions: 8 x 0.8 x 5.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
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- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #989,415 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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What to Expect When No One's Expecting: America's Coming Demographic Disaster Hardcover – February 5, 2013
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The UN projects that world population, currently around seven billion, will peak over the next eighty-five years between ten billion and twelve billion people before starting a long and inexorable decline. Which is, Last argues, precisely the real cataclysm humanity faces. An extremely sharp writer with a great eye for telling details and revealing anecdotes What To Expect When No One's Expecting is a rich and detailed read, well worth the price of admission just for Last's cogent summarizing of long-term demographic trends. —Nick Gillespie
P.J. O’Rourke, Author of Holidays in Heck
This book explodes old ways of thinking. Not moralizing, not blaming, Jonathan Last peers methodically ahead at the cold consequences of plunging global birth rates: aging and ever smaller national populations, the fatal destruction of the financial premises of the welfare state, disappearing military strength. He describes the comfortable, happy childlessness chosen by more and more highly educated coupleslives of personal contentment, yes, but with unutterably sad national consequences. We are left to draw conclusions ourselves: The use of sex is not simply personal; the future of the whole human race hangs on it. Those who missed Ben Wattenberg’s The Birth Dearth (1987) have another chance to be shaken awake by the earthquake rumbling louder and faster beneath us.”
Michael Novak, recipient of the Templeton Prize (1994), and author of The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism
"Jonathan Last provides us with a well-written, well-argued description of one of the most profound, yet poorly understood phenomena of the 21st century: the world worldwide fall in birthrates and attendant rapid aging of the human population. He masterfully describes the key facts and concepts any literate person should know about the sea change in global demography and speculates wisely and soberly about the implications for the future of humanity. Avoiding the alarmism, sexism, and racial chauvinism that mars so such other writing on this subject, Last is an insightful and trustworthy guide."
Phillip Longman, Senior Fellow of the New America Foundation and author of The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity And What To Do About It
"Jonathan Last's writing matches his reasoning: as clear as a shot of gin, and just as bracing. America is changing more quickly than ever before, and this book explains why. A terrific, important read."
Tucker Carlson, Editor of The Daily Caller
"Jonathan Last's pulled off an amazing feat. He's written a book that's at once lively and profound, that deals with weighty matters with a light touch, and that explains a complex subject clearly. It might make you laugh, it could make you cry--but above all it will make you think."
William Kristol, Editor, The Weekly Standard
"Imagine a merger of Mark Steyn and David Brooks with a Supreme Court imposed page limit."
Hugh Hewitt, Host, The Hugh Hewitt Show
The Malthusian paranoia of a coming population boom has nothing on the reality of a coming population implosion. Frankly it kinda makes a girl want to procreate.”
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THINGS I LIKED
1. I found his observations on the effect that ideological sorting has on a region's politics to be very interesting, even though it was only tangentially related to fertility. In the 1976 presidential election, only 26.8% of counties went to either candidate by greater than a 20 point margin. In the 2004 presidential election, 45.3% of counties went to either candidate by greater than a 20 point margin. In both elections, the percentage of the popular vote was similar--it's not that American individuals became more Democratic/Republican, it's just that increasing mobility allowed like-minded people to collect together, polarizing election outcomes and leading to the election of more polarized Congressmen.
This plays out with families too. People who are married, religious, and want to have kids (these things are often found together) gradually group together, usually in suburbs/rural areas where things are cheaper and roomier. I found his discussion of Salt Lake City interesting: the actual city has recently started to go Democratic, but the surrounding suburbs have become even more Republican and Mormon. A small scale version of the Big Sort.
2. I liked his detailed examination of how various countries' efforts to boost fertility have failed. In short, the government is quite ineffective at convincing people to have children they don't want to have. In reading reactions to this book, I've noticed that liberal commentators usually use the opportunity to slam Last for not promoting policies like universal paid maternal leave, child subsidies, etc. What they seem to ignore is that Last does examine these policies, and find that they just don't work. They should re-read his discussion of Japan's and Singapore's pro-fertility legislation.
They should also re-read his discussion of France's pro-fertility legislation. While France's fertility rate of 2.08 might seem impressive for a Western European nation, it masks the fact that native-born French women have a fertility rate of 1.7 and foreign-born French residents have a fertility rate of 2.8. France's relatively high fertility rate is primarily due to immigration, not paid maternal leave, cash payments, national day care centers, etc.
3. Some commentators portray Last as anti-immigration, saying that his reluctance to champion more liberal immigration policies as the solution to this dilemma is a sign of him putting his partisanship ahead of the data. They must not have read the book very well. Last says, "One of the lessons from Japan and France is that no wealthy, industrialized nation can prop up its fertility rate without large-scale immigration. America is, as we have seen, no different. A reasonably liberal program of immigration is necessary for the long-term health of our country."
Last simply couches this with a reminder that immigrants' fertility tends to trend toward the American norm after a generation or two, and that we should expect fewer immigrants in the years ahead as increasing economic opportunities and declining fertility rates in Latin America give people less incentive to come here.
4. I like that he addressed the interplay between secularists' growing numbers due to adult conversion, which is stymied by secularists' low fertility rates and low success rates at raising the children they do have within their irreligion (most children raised by non-religious parents grow up to identify with some religion). I'm not sure whether religious fertility or secularist culture is stronger, and neither is Last, but I'm glad that he at least addressed this.
5. The book is a quick and easy read. I finished it in one night.
THINGS I DIDN'T LIKE
1. The author's prose is sometimes charged, labeling people as "crackpots", lampooning liberal beliefs, etc. I'm a staunch conservative, but I'm afraid that this type of rhetoric might limit this book's audience to the choir. The prose is also somewhat erratic, sometimes whipsawing between anecdotes and statistics without smooth transitions. The combination of these 2 things lends the book a somewhat frenetic, jigsaw feel.
2. While some of the author's proposals (decreasing FICA taxes for parents based on their number of children, to pay them back for supporting America's future taxpayers, etc.) seem like good places for discussion to start, he doesn't really flesh these out. For instance, decreasing these families' FICA payments would take further funds from a system that's already having trouble. How would he address this? Last doesn't really go into it.
He also tends to stretch some of his connections, sometimes accidentally. Sure, I buy that parents' spending less time in traffic and more time with their families can encourage a kid-friendly climate. But his citation seems to suggest (I think accidentally) that Dallas' lesser traffic is directly responsible for Dallas' higher fertility rate compared to Los Angeles.
All in all, I enjoyed this book and would recommend it as an introduction to the subject to a reader who is pre-disposed to overlook its more colorful tendencies (aka a conservative reader) and discover the valuable information underneath. But if you're trying to convince a skeptic, I'd recommend a more neutral book/article.
I've read all the negative reviews, and frankly, I think that the folks that wrote those reviews are putting their politics ahead of the quality of the book and its arguments. That is to say, they aren't willing to take a look at what is bound to happen if it doesn't jive with their political outlook.
The numbers are not controversial. They've been reported in the press for years--as soon as the baby boomers die off (in the US) and as soon as the generation born in the late 50's and early 60's in the third world die off, the population of the world will begin to decline. Don't believe this author if you don't like that he is a religious man, just look the numbers up on the internet (the UN has them) and you can see for yourself.
This book is written in a very conversational style that is very easy to grasp. His numbers are clear and all of them are cited. He gives a comprehensible prognosis and suggestions to avoid what the author deems will be a huge disaster. I never felt that the author was pushing his ideology on me, although he was clear as to what his values were. The author's values are not mine, but I am happy to listen to him and hear his very interesting argument.
I give this book 4 stars instead of 5 because, although he was clear, the author never made me feel that the population going down would be such a devastating thing. Social security will be destroyed, here and in all the developed world. China will have a huge mess trying to support its aging population. But, since this book is taking the long view (none of this mess is expected to take place for 50 years or so) I wasn't convinced that the long view for population decline (after the disruption caused by the initial shock) would be so bad.
Many of us alive today will see the strain put on society by fewer workers having to pay for more Social Security recipients (and other elders in the rest of the world) but none of us alive today, will live long enough to see the final outcome. I think there will be great disruption, but I think it may all turn out very happily with a smaller population.
So, although I don't agree with the author on all points, there is no controversy about his data. The population is going to go down. The question is what happens next. That is where I disagree with this author, but I certainly enjoyed my "discussion" with him as I read the book.
Top international reviews
The positives of the book is that it does offer a lot of statistics, although many are from think-tanks whom I'm not familiar with and so I'm a little wary of their data. But I think his general points, about birth rates, are pretty solid. He paints a grim picture of what a future with fewer babies will be like. In particular, it will mean that elderly entitlements like Social Security or Medicare will increasingly either have to be cut or have bigger shares passed on to younger generations. I'm not sure of the situation in Canada, but the author is clear that US social security works by paying today for today's elderly. Tomorrow's elderly need to be paid by tomorrow's youth, and if there's far more elderly relative to youths, then that's going to be a big problem. He also points out how its the youth who spend more money, invest in riskier capital, and are more likely to be inventors or entrepreneurs. Extinction aside, these are all very important economic reasons for being concerned about demographics and birth rates. This stuff is very interesting, and on its own, could have been worth four or five stars.
The downside is that the author keeps dragging the argument through the muck of his own beliefs. He starts off trying not to, but it's obvious from the start that he has his bias. For example, one good thing about fewer people is that we will pose less of a burden on the planet. But he completely dismisses this, saying that technology has always solved our population problems. Well, look around buddy and see how the oceans are doing, how the forests are doing, how world pollution is doing. Even the strongest global warming denier can't claim that our world is getting healthier with time (in some limited areas, sure, but not overall). What's strange is his belief in science solving all problems doesn't extend to the problem at hand. Instead, he pushes for religion as one of a few key solutions to this problem. It's true that religious people (practicing religious) have more children, but his statement that there's no good reason for having a second child other than God wanting you to have more than one is just ridiculous. I have more than one (three) because I love kids, and I wanted my children to have siblings to grow up with and lean on when they are older. God's wishes didn't enter that equation. If they did for you, fine, but that's clearly not the only reason people have more than one child. He also says he won't discuss his attitudes about abortion (a clear, if not massive, cause of lower birth rates) and then bashes it almost every time it comes up. Putting your moral condemnation in a large footnote at the bottom of the page isn't staying neutral. His condemnation of liberals is more subtle, but it's also present. He also suggests that fewer people go to university so that they can instead starting earning money and having kids. Especially women. Now I agree that there are plenty of people in university who don't belong there, but education is a good thing. I've never heard someone curse themselves for being too smart. Why not instead make it easier for women to pursue university and an early career while still becoming mothers as a solution to creeping 1st baby maternal age rates? I'd rather give prospective parents support rather than restrict their educational choices.
All of this is too bad as I agree that falling birth rates are a very important issue worth serious public consideration. From an economic perspective, I'm not sure if we won't balance things out eventually, but it's certain to involve some pain or sacrifice and if the issue continues or gets worse, that pain and sacrifice are really going to hurt. I do wish that the author spent more time discussing psychological reasons why a species would not choose to reproduce at its maximum rate, that's something that humans seem to be unique at. Australian rabbits, cane toads, etc. didn't have that problem. But we do- why? Unfortunately, beyond issues like having to buy safety seats and mini-vans, the author offers precious few reasons. Certainly, modern life is less conducive to family life in many ways, but why is that? Why do people tolerate that? How can we rebel against our genetic mission to procreate so successfully? To me, that's the million dollar question and it goes unanswered in this book. So fascinating topic, OK discussion equals three stars. If you don't mind lots of subtle right-wing jibs then this is probably four stars.