What to Expect When You’re Expected Not to Expect

There’s a bit of an irony in the fact that I’ve not been able to get to Jonathan Last’s What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster sooner in part due to having several small children to tend to. Alas, as Last dutifully emphasizes, my family is an outlier in modern America (even if in our own Catholic community we sometimes feel like we are woefully far behind).

Last’s book is a very important, if somewhat depressing read. America’s birthrate has been hovering at barely above replacement for the past several decades, and is starting to dip below the magic 2.0 line. Though we are doing better than almost all of the rest of the western world, we have reached a point where more and more Americans are choosing either not to have kids, or are having only one or two if they do, in large part thanks to starting so late. The only thing keeping our birthrate even near replacement are immigrant families, but even the trend here is steadily declining as immigrants are assimilating in at least one way: not having as many children as they used to.

Last identifies several key factors. Long story short, middle class Americans are getting married later and later (if at all), as they spend their most fertile years paying off their college debts. There’s much more to it than that, but most Americans in their 20s would prefer to spend whatever money they have left over after loans on more consumer goodies. Last identifies several other anti-family pressures. He even alludes to increasingly harsh child safety seat measures. As I can testify, I am pretty sure my oldest child won’t get to ride in the front seat until she’s in drivers ed.

One key takeaway is that this demographic disaster is a largely cultural phenomenon that cannot be reversed by legislation. To be sure Last offers several minor policy suggestions, but he concedes that these would barely make a dent. Last notes that several countries that have tried extreme measures to reverse their demographic decline have failed miserably, and the evidence is in that mere policy fiat will not stem the tide.

One of the most striking aspects of the book was Last’s discussion of how he felt compelled to leave Old Town (a suburb outside of Washington, DC) and flee to the suburbs once he and his wife began having children. The kind of life they were living in this very trendy and hip location was no longer supportable with children in tow. What’s more, the cultural milieu of places like Old Town are almost hostile to children. As someone who has spent time in these areas, I can acknowledge the truth of this. It is difficult, though not quite impossible, to raise a large family in certain parts of DC, in part because it’s so expensive, but also because, well, it’s not the most kid friendly environment.

The key observation is that there are many subtle cultural forces at work against the family. As noted above, Last mentions child safety seats. The mandates to keep kids in some form of safety seat until they are practically adults necessitates purchasing larger vehicles. You might want to take note of how many Honda Odysseys, Siennas, Town and Countries, and similar minivans there are in the parking lot next time you go to Church. These are not cheap vehicles. That’s not to say that these laws are necessarily wrong, or are a primary driver (no pun intended) of smaller families, but they are just one of many things working against the family.

There’s also just the general hostility towards large families. As this Matt Archbold post from July reminds us, some people just can’t fathom the idea of handling more than one or two children. Or as the mom in Matt’s post put it, “Who has five children? I’d kill myself if I had that many kids.”

So with all that in mind, what can we do? For starters, we need an entity or organization that fearlessly and tirelessly celebrates the family. Such an entity would speak of the value of children and of the wonders of procreation. This entity would speak against all of the forces that work against the family. It would even unabashedly critique the contraceptive and consumerist mentalities that persuade people to put off having children. Such an entity, if one such entity exists, would first work to convince its own membership on these matters, and would risk alienating a few of them so long as it managed to sway the rest. It would have to preach from the pulpit, if you will, ceaselessly imparting knowledge and guidance.

Oh for such an entity to exist.

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  1. “Oh for such an entity to exist.”

    If only. If only.

    Here, have some verbal “accompaniment,” “caresses,” graduality and freedom from dogmatic interpretations instead. That’s just as good, eh, no?

  2. Maybe the government can get involved and invent such an entity . . . maybe something like the Department of Population Expansion (DOPE)?? jking!

  3. Hey – I just learned something! I’ve been hearing about this book for a while, but didn’t realize who wrote it. I’ve been a fan of Last from the Weekly Standard. I’m still not sure I want to put out the money for another book, but I’m glad he’s the one behind it.

  4. Last is conning you for effect. There is no demographic disaster nor much reason to anticipate one. There is no secular decline in the size of birth cohorts (the 2007 cohort was the largest on record), nor is their any indication that recent downward flux is anything but a reaction to economic conditions.

    France, Britain, Sweden, and Ireland all have fertility rates near those of the United States and Britain, France, Russia, and a number of Scandinavian countries have had improvements in fertility sustained over periods of 15 to 30 years and counting. The disaster is in Germany and Japan and parts of Mediterranean Europe.

  5. Last is correct in so many ways.

    My parents met and married in their early 20s. Dad was not yet 26 and Mom was 22 when they married in 1962. My youngest brother – there are four of us – was born in 1973. Mom had just turned 33.

    I did not finish college until after I turned 24. 5 and a half years of struggle – college was never any fun. It took me 13 months to find a job. I didn’t have a single date until I was 23 and not any girlfriends until I was 35. The missus and I have two kids. We have lost three due to miscarriage. God bless those who have bigger families.

    So Last lived in Old Town Alexandria. So much of the DC area is hostile to families with young kids. On the rare occasions that I saw a family on the Metro with kids the train would be filled with scowls from cranky people.

    Western Pennsylvania is a far better place to raise a family.

  6. The total number of births for 2007 was “the highest ever recorded”– about 4.316 million, managing to top 1957’s 4.308. Keep in mind that records can have issues, etc, let’s assume they all equal out…

    That said, there’s a bit* of a difference in the population, birth rate, number of folks born here to non-resident parents, etc.
    *that’s irony, there; the US population is a bit less that twice as big, for starters.

  7. Amusing thing– heard on the radio today that there’s no need to worry about population, because Millennial now make up ALMOST 30% of the population.

    My husband and I are both Millennials. We’re in our early 30s. (everyone born in 81 up to now, the way they defined it)
    Humans live to about 90.(79 at birth, but we all know how jacked the infant mortality stats are) If a third are in the youngest third, there are issues unless you manage to absolutely stop all deaths in the “people under thirty” group.

  8. Penguins Fan- to back up your bit— when my parents met and got married, they were both “obviously” never going to get married because they were so old; when my husband and I met and got engaged, folks were shocked because we were “so young.”
    I was two years younger than my mom had been….that’s a really big cultural shift, and a lot of it from the self-same people.
    (Dumbest reason I heard that we’d “never have kids”: I didn’t babysit when I was a teen. Because liking kids in general is needed to like your kids in specific? Meh.)

  9. Alright, one more in its own post because it didn’t fit the flow of the prior:
    when I was in high school, they wanted us to write out “goal sheets” about what we wanted to be. I wanted to say “mother.” (My mom is awesome. Even when I was in that phase where we fought constantly, I knew that and wanted to be her, wanted to be the version of her that SHE wants to be.)
    I was informed that was not a valid option.
    I still have folks who are horrified that I am “wasting” myself on being Mom. Never mind that my daughters discuss the good and bad points of various weapons in a fight, that my four year old reads, that my three year old can measure out a cup of flour without supervision, that my one year old knows to move chairs, I’m “wasted” because I don’t get a paycheck.
    This really wears on a body, and women are especially vulnerable to that stress– that expectation– and our ability to make children decays faster than a man’s.
    Amy S over on Ricochet is my age, and is desperately fighting to have a baby after having spent the first 30 years of her life doing what she is “supposed” to do, and finding it empty. (pray for her, please)

  10. Listening to NPR radio– Spokane Public Radio– and they just did a segment on how by 2020 there will be 40% of the electorate who are Millennials, AKA those currently 18-35. (I think, didn’t write it down– may have been 34 or 33, I’ll go with the low.)

    in 2020 the 18 will be 24, so age 24-39 will be 40% of the “electorate.” Heaven knows how they’re defining this, registration or population.

    Folks under 40 will be less than half of the voting population, and that’s a big thing?

  11. Japan, because it has very low rates of inward and outward migration, provides a good case study of what happens as a population ages.

    People spend less and save more for retirement. Demand shifts from present goods to future goods, that is, securities. The price of present goods falls and the price of future goods rises; the compensation for waiting for the future declines, and the rate of interest falls. The country trades surplus present goods for future goods, exporting goods and buying securities with the proceeds, shifting the current account balance to surplus. The exchange rate rises (unless, like Germany, the country is in the €)

    All in all, not a particularly gloomy prospect.

  12. eople spend less and save more for retirement.

    Which is precisely the opposite of what is happening in Japan.

    A demographic shift has added to the decline. As its population ages, Japan’s retirees are drawing down savings. The household savings ratio stood at 1.0% at the end of March 2013, down from 11.8% two decades ago, when there were roughly half as many people aged 65 and over.

  13. Paul Zummo

    Of course, as people retire they draw down their savings (often to purchae annuities)

    As I said, “People…save more for retirement,” which is precisely what did happen in Japan. That is how Japan sustains a gross government debt of 237.9% of GDP (134.32% net) – It is almost all held internally

  14. Paul Zummo
    It really is quite simple.
    (1) As they get older, people of working age save towards their retirement and spend less on consumption.
    (2) After they retire, they draw down their savings.
    That has been the pattern in Japan since at least the 1970s.
    As the proportion of over-60s in the population increases, savings decline.

  15. “When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

    ’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

    ’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”

  16. “We need an entity or organization that fearlessly and tirelessly celebrates the family.”
    Babies are hard work. New mothers, and mothers for whom the second, third, next child has just arrived on scene… need all the spiritual help they can get, to keep up morale even when every material need is met.

  17. Another factor may be :expectations of government.

    The following (posted at Zero Hedge) is excerpted from Armstrong Economics.

    “Socialism has even changed the historic bounds of family. You had 4 to 6 kids for that was your retirement. The kids knew they had the responsibility of taking care of their parents. Today – that’s government’s job. Everything has been changed to depend upon government that never tells the truth […]”

    “ . . . the Black family was stronger than the white family before welfare. When you paid women not to be married and to have children, you change the family structure. Socialism has significantly altered the behavior of every race all based upon expectations of government.”

    “Free food changes behavior be it people or animals. Being compassionate is to be human. To give a man a free fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and your feed him for a lifetime. Government adopted the first strategy to create dependency upon the political system.

    “What happens when government collapses and people are totally unprepared because they never thought government collapses?”

  18. I’ve posted this before, and it was an eye opener when I read it.
    I was alive and somewhat aware during the 80’s. I vaguely remember the population control gaining traction, and Reagan and his supporters saying that “education was good population control” (meaning that contraception and abortion wasn’t needed (do I remember this wrong?)
    Brian Robertson in his book There’s No Place Like Work notes that public education closely correlates with birth rate decline, and that homeschooling seems to boost fertility rates.

  19. “education was good population control”

    I don’t recall Reagan ever saying anything like that. Declining fertility and public education probably has more to do with delaying marriages as a result of going through the educational process due to the time it takes. I doubt if homeschooling would make any difference to fertility rates, absent the family involved being anti-contraceptives.

  20. “education was good population control”
    That essentially was what the blogmeister at Thorium Molten Salt Reactors said in his blog post here:
    The blogmeister said specifically:
    “Robert Hargraves who wrote Thorium: Energy cheaper than coal – writes and speaks about how energy, which he says allows prosperity – and that allows for education – and education allows for a lower birthrate.”
    I responded:
    Overall a pretty good post. However, the following statement treats a positive birthrate as a negative social factor, and assumes a false Malthusian overpopulation problem (there is enough thorium and uranium in Earth’s crust to fuel a planet of billions more than we have for millennia on end, and such energy could enable our species to expand to other places in the solar system):

    “Robert Hargraves who wrote Thorium: Energy cheaper than coal – writes and speaks about how energy, which he says allows prosperity – and that allows for education – and education allows for a lower birthrate.”

    Viewing conception and birth as things to be separated from conjugal relations, and as things to be artificially manipulated is the height of selfishness and self-centeredness, and is the opposite of what moral and virtuous education provides. The anti-procreation mentality says: “What I want to have for myself is more important than what I have to give to a baby.” Personally, I myself would not want to entrust the energy of the atom to such selfishness, for such people seem to have been educated into imbecility. The following blog entry at The American Catholic, while not directly applicable to nuclear energy, addresses the unintended consequences of a selfishness that institutes measures for low birth rates – how sad that at a moment of the greatest prosperity that the human race has ever experienced, we don’t want babies!
    The blogmeister responded:
    “If it is the natural outcome that birth rates become lower as the result of prosperity and education I think you are using the word Malthusian incorrectly. The desire to engineer a higher quality of life should not be viewed as immoral. You need to scold the greens among us who are anti nuclear. With their prescription the planet will result in far more deaths and that seriously slows down birth rate. I would say ignorance is no excuse.”
    I responded (with comment in moderation):
    “A higher quality of life can only be had by a moral and virtuous people who value babies as new life to be cherished. Failure to procreate in order to provide for a larger next generation disables the living standard of the elderly retired in the previous and current generations, for the next generation, being bigger, would generate the revenue needed to support the previous. The current socialist democracies of Europe and the corporate socialism of North America are failing precisely because of falling birth rates, except for Islamists whose militancy adversely impacts all of us. And those falling birthrates are due not to having conjugal relations less, but to immorally divorcing such relations in half, dividing the unitive function of love from the procreative function of love. When a people wants pleasure but not the consequences of pleasure, when they lack the personal self-control that such hedonistic libertinism clearly demonstrates, when they disregard new life as bothersome and troublesome, then they surely cannot be trusted with the power of the atom.”
    The overwhelming majority of people nowadays believe in the contraceptive, abortive mentality, and think they can engineer prosperity. Sadly, we have to re-learn the lesson of Judah and Israel.

  21. Whatever the motivation, it is true that there is a negative correlation between birthrate and educational levels. In other words, the higher education level, the lower the birth rate. Now as Donald mentioned this no doubt at least partially due to people delaying marriage because they are going through the educational process, and then paying down their loans.

  22. Does Mr Last address birthrates per population groups, regions, religions etc? –

    Yes, he does go through different population cohorts, including I believe regional variations. I’d have to go back through to see what he wrote specifically, but he pretty thoroughly explores different aspects of the issue.

  23. Maybe you are right, Paul Zummo. But I think what happens is this: people are educated into the sterility life style. Yes, some delay having children due to debt pay down. But are they refraining from conjugal relations or are they contracepting and aborting? And do they stop after debt payoff or do they continue?

  24. T Shaw wrote, “You had 4 to 6 kids for that was your retirement. The kids knew they had the responsibility of taking care of their parents”
    Capitalism (or usury) introduced another method. Old people earn interest from mortgage-backed bonds, issued to finance homes for young people.
    The old people do not even need savings to buy their bonds. Capital gains on homes, in a rising property market fuelled by mortgage-lending will serve the purpose just as well.
    If they cannot find enough young people to lend to in their own country, they can find them abroad.
    The most honourable, as well as the most lucrative, employment for young people is acting as middlemen in the process – “something in the City.”

  25. You are entitled to your own opinions, but not to your own set of facts

    My facts are from the World Bank, the National Center for Health Statistics, and the Census Bureau. You and Last can complain to them.

  26. Paul Zummo wrote, “Whatever the motivation, it is true that there is a negative correlation between birthrate and educational levels”

    The strong negative corrolation does not only apply to higher education but also to levels of female literacy. Those Islamic countries most successful in improving female literacy rates, such as Algeria and Iran, have seen a sharp dcline in their birth-rates. In Iran, the decline from a TFR of 6 to one of 2 occurred in a single generation; in most of Western Europe (excluding France, which is a very curious case), it was spread over three.

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