In 1968, Paul R. Ehrlich published an influential book, The Population Bomb. The manuscript was originally entitled, “Population, Resources, and Environment,” and Erhlich warned of impending doom if global population growth was not significantly curtailed. Erhlich predicted environmental catastrophe, famine, and even war if the world’s population was allowed to grow. Erhlich published his book just as fertility rates were beginning to decline in the West and shortly before they would do so in most of the developing world, but he still wrote in 1968: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.” Time has proven Erhlich to be spectacularly wrong, although he has repeatedly insisted that his dire predictions will come true shortly.
Erhlich has been thoroughly debunked. Until recently, the best book doing so was Ben J. Wattenberg’s 1987, The Birth Dearth. He warned that rather than a population explosion, a population implosion was about to occur and that it would threaten the welfare state. Wattenberg, a centrist Democrat, argued that massive numbers of new taxpayers had to be bred to support the Western welfare state with its pensions and health care spending. Now we have Jonathan V. Last’s What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster, effectively a thorough updating of The Birth Dearth, although Last goes farther and deeper than Wattenberg did.
Since 1960, the U.S. fertility rate fell about 50 per cent from 3.7 live births a year per 1000 women of child-bearing age to 1.9. Demographers agree that the replacement level fertility rate is 2.1, below which, without immigration, a country’s population would both decline and get older. Canada’s fertility rate is even lower than America’s, at a tad above 1.6. Japan and Italy have fertility rates around 1.4; Japan’s population is actually shrinking and Italy’s might be. Increasingly America, and indeed all of the West including Canada, will have the demographic profile of Florida: predominantly seniors. As Last points out, this has not worked well for Japan, which began to experience sub-replacement level fertility rates in the 1970s and now suffers huge public debt, an entitlements crisis, and economic stagnation.
Last is a conservative born during the 1970s. He is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard and has developed a reputation as perhaps the second most trenchant critic of the West’s demographic trajectory after Mark Steyn. It is therefore odd that he resorts to the Wattenberg argument that America’s and Europe’s welfare state is unsustainable with current below-replacement level fertility rates. Pensions and health care spending for seniors requires more taxpaying workers. In the 1950s, Social Security in the U.S. had 16.5 workers supporting each retiree; by 2009, there were 2.9 workers per retiree. It doesn’t take much to extrapolate to an unsustainable one-for-one ratio.
Concern about the affordability of big government is certainly one argument, but it is not the only argument against declining fertility rates, nor even the best one. Not being able to afford the massive welfare state is a problem but it might not qualify as a disaster. My own view is not so much that radical demographic changes will result in disaster but that it will fundamentally change society. There are numerous consequences to smaller families and childless women. Last says that in Japan and Italy the “average person … will soon have no brothers, sisters, aunts, or uncles.” Our very concept of family will change; indeed, over the Summer it was reported that the Department of Education in New York City is trying to limit students’ exposure to the idea of the extended family, banning the words aunt and uncle from standardized tests, lest it either offend students who have none or, worse, introduce an entirely alien concept to them.
Although that incident occurred after the release of What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, it is precisely the sort of reporting that Last expertly mixes with his detailed and copious use of statistics and surveys. For example, he notes that in Japan, adult diapers outsell baby diapers. Last combines the cold hard data – there are 42 pages of footnotes in this 230-page book – with telling details to outline the myriad ways society is changing, and mostly not for the better.
But where Last really excels is his identification of the root of the problem. Unlike many economists and demographers who fret about demographic trends, Last, an admitted “anti-abortion nut job,” says that not only do changing cultural mores and the availability of the contraceptive pill radically change family structure, but so did legal abortion. He does not dwell on the point, but he does acknowledge the obvious point that in the U.S., states with lower abortion rates have higher fertility rates.
Last explores policy that address the problems influenced by demographics such as possibly fiddling with pension contributions (providing exemptions for dependents, just as we do for income taxes) and other reforms. He correctly states that it is nearly impossible to use public policy to incentivize having children that women and couples do not want, and that the focus of government policy should be to help people have the children they want by reducing the disincentives to having children. If there is a silver lining to Last’s often dreary tale, it is that research shows that Americans’ ideal fertility has held steady at about 2.5 for the past 40 years, indicating that many women want to have more children than they actually do. Public policy should get out of the way to the extent it prevents women from attaining their desired number of children.
But public policy is not the only driver of family size; cultural change is probably necessary so that more women will be open to having more children. Indeed, Last identifies the cultural drivers of lower fertility rates, such as declining religious observance and “the trap of modernity” in which people “eschew children in favour of more pleasurable pursuits,” but he says reversing these trends might not even be possible.
What to Expect When No One’s Expecting does a very good job describing the decline in fertility and explaining why it occurred. He also does a good job explaining its consequences. That in itself makes for a very valuable book, probably the best public policy book of the year in either Canada or the United States. However, those looking for satisfying solutions will be left wanting.
But if there is one important lesson in the book, it is that economic and social issues are deeply interconnected, and those worried about long-term economic growth should also be concerned about moral issues.
Paul Tuns is editor of The Interim.