Jonathan V. Last, Author, What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster
Thinking in Public
March 14, 2013
Mohler: This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host and President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
Jonathan V. Last is Senior Writer of The Weekly Standard in Washington, DC. His writings have been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and many other of the nation’s most illustrious and influential newspapers. He’s also written for the Claremont Review of Books, the journal First Things, and others. His latest book is What to Expect When No One’s Expecting. The subtitle of the book is “America’s Coming Demographic Disaster.” Well, what to expect? I expect a good conversation with Jonathan Last.
Jonathan, behind your book, What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, is your observation that something big is happening in the way human beings behave?
Last: That’s right. We just aren’t having enough babies. It’s this amazing, amazing change in what is really the central fact of the human condition. Throughout recorded history people have always had—not always but almost always had enough people, enough babies to sustain themselves, to sustain their civilizations and their populations. In fact, throughout most of recorded history people have had more than enough to sustain. In fact, the populations have grown, but beginning in 1968 in American and the Western-industrialized countries, fertility rates dropped off the table. They fell by half in a matter of years. By 1973, America was below the replacement fertility rate and by the mid-1970s all of the West was. This was really interesting. This was a sort of calamity in many ways, but it was a subject of academic interest, but then as the professional academics and demographers were studying it they noticed that fertility decline spread to the rest of the world as well. So today, 97% of the world’s population lives in a country where the fertility rate is declining. Global population is going to peak, we believe, sometime in the next 50 or 60 years, and is then going to begin shrinking. For the first time in human-recorded history, population will shrink, not because of famines, not because of war or disease or pestilence, but because people simply can’t be bothered to have enough children.
Mohler: Well, amazingly enough, as you cite very thoroughly in your book, there are a number of people who hearing you say that that even if they accepted it as true, which it self-evidently is, they would think this is a good thing.
Last: Yeah, that’s true. There are a lot of people out there who think that this is all hearts and flowers and it will be fine and that we don’t need people. You know there’s another book just written last year by a guy named Robert Zubrin called Merchants of Despair, and what he argues very convincingly, I think, is that when you scratch those people deep enough, throughout history—and those arguments we’ve been hearing them for 200 years, since the time Thomas More says people are the problem, over-population is the problem. All those concerns, first of all, are based on faith not actual science and data. Although, the data suggests population growth produces very good things. We have longer life spans. We have higher standards living. We do not have famine anymore the way we did 200 years ago because we have learned to conquer food production. But when you really scratch those people deep enough, they’re anti-humanists in a way. It is really about the environment for them. It’s about that they don’t like people. And so that is why I think they don’t think this is a problem.
Mohler: Well to cite just one very important voice there, you would have David Attenborough, a very famous British scientist who just recently called human beings basically a pest, a plague upon the planet.
Last: And that’s really the heart of it. You know, in a way, that’s progress, I guess, because going back 200 years ago and really until the 1960s when people said those things they were always explicitly racist claims. So the claim was always that people in Asia or people in Africa, people who look different than we were and came from different cultures, that they were the problem, and the great achievement of Paul Ehrlich’s population bomb (if we can call it a great achievement) was to sort of move passed the mere racism of those positions into just blanket anti-humanism. So I suppose in a way it’s an improvement and in a way it’s a step backwards.
Mohler: That’s a very interesting way to look at it, but it’s also very interesting you bring up Paul Ehrlich because, just in terms of my interest in these issues over the last 30 years, Paul Ehrlich is so central to understanding why we’re having this conversation and why so many people would find it so shocking. Because Paul Ehrlich, after all, gained great fame, both in the academic community here in the United States and in the larger popular culture, by warning that we were all on the precipice of a mass starvation because the planet could not sustain this level of population.
Last: Yea, so he published his book, Population Bomb, in 1968. I think it has sold three million copies. It’s so unbelievably, wildly successful. But it’s a strange book in so many ways. It’s strange because he himself is not a demographer. He’s like me actually. He’s just someone who just plays a demographer on television. All he was doing was mining other data and drawing his own conclusions. He was largely an autodidact. Two, he was precisely wrong. His book argues on the very first pages that hundreds of millions of people are going to die in just a handful of years and that, he says, the battle to feed humanity is over and there is nothing we can do about it. Well the only sense in which he is right is that it is true that the battle to feed humanity was over, but humanity won. Within just a few years of writing that, there were no mass starvations because we had the Green Revolution in agriculture and now to the extent to which there is any problem with starvation in the world it really is a political problem, the result of corrupt autocrats using starvation and food as a weapon against their own people. But what’s really interesting is that he was exactly wrong at the exact moment when the opposite was happening. Ehrlich was warning about asintotic population growth with fertility rates that would spike to unimaginably high levels, would remain at high levels, and a rate of population growth that would increase relentless to infinity. And, again, the opposite happened. Beginning in 1968 was when the fertility collapse began in the West and then began, eventually, spreading worldwide. And so, in a strange way, the book which has shaped the most thinking; shaped the popular conception of the entire subject of demographics to an unimaginably large degree over the last 40 years now has been the book which has been the most wrongheaded in every particular.
Mohler: But isn’t interesting in America’s popular culture? And, as I recall, Paul Ehrlich was even a guest host and a frequent guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, of all things.
Last: Not only was he—Carson would have him on occasionally and give him the entire show, like literally a full hour of just Paul Ehrlich. No jokes, no other guests, no Hollywood stars flogging movies. I mean that’s an amazing to think how respected and how influential he was.
Mohler: Well, by the way, let’s just point out, in many circles, even though we now have 30 years plus of evidence against him, he’s still influential in some circles and he never has recanted his theories, even though he said that by the late 1970s, hundreds of millions of people would be starving to death.
Last: Yea and not only has he not recanted, he’s actually doubled down. He wrote a sequel to it just a few years ago. I forget what the exact title of the book is. My friends and I always joke that it’s called “The Population Bomb: Now More Than Ever.” I mean, it’s just sort of pathetic and sad in a way and I feel bad beating up on a gentleman who is in his golden years, but his book is immensely harmful. But here’s the funny thing: the enormous influence his book was having in the popular conception and then in policy circles, sort of along governments in Europe and governments here in America, certainly foundations like the Ford Foundation and the Planned Parenthood International Federation clung to it as a bible, but all the academic research in the field being done by the actual demographers and the actual experts was going in the exact opposite direction. People who were studying this stuff were totally unconcerned with our population. What they were really mystified by was the phenomenon of falling fertility rates and sub-replacement fertility and then eventually what demographers called “lowest-low fertility.” Those are fertility rates below 1.4 from which countries begin entering what they call a demographic-test spiral, where after two generations of lowest-low fertility you wind up then losing I think it’s 40 percent of your population every 40 years.
Mohler: Well demographers looking at a nation like Japan right now are openly speculating that there are no models to predict how any society can recover from the free fall in fertility that now marks Japan because once you start down the road of having a total fertility rate that is so low, other than some kind of mass immigration, which the nation of Japan has insulated itself against for centuries, could even begin to remedy the problem.
Last: Yeah, and Japan is really the very leading edge of this global demographic collapse. Japan has been sub-replacing for 50 going on 60 years. They have been lowest-low fertility now for 40 years. What their numbers look like is this: if their fertility rate were to rebound this afternoon and suddenly be at the replacement level and then stay at the replacement level for the next 80 years, they would only lose 28 percent of their total population over that period. That’s amazing. Imagine losing one out of every four people around you. Now if, on the other hand, the fertility rate were to stay where it is now, they’re going to lose close to 60 percent of their total population before the end of this century. That’s amazing. Japan already has half of the land classified of what they call marginal-depopulated land. But you simply have things closing up shop and what’s really worrisome here is that what precedes depopulation is an inversion of the age pyramid so that you wind up with many more old people than young people. Last year, for the first time in Japan, people bought more adults’ diapers than they did diapers for babies. That is going to be a condition which persists for the foreseeable future. In about 20 years, they will have for every newborn baby every year, for every new birth, they will also have a citizen turning 100, so they will at all times have equal number of babies and centenarians. That’s an amazing thing, and we can’t even really fully contemplate what sort of macro-affect that’s going to have on society beyond the very pedestrian, you know, economic problems and economic disasters, which it’s already causing.
Mohler: I cited back last year when that statistic came out about the tipping point where all of the sudden you had more adult diapers sold in Japan than infant diapers, and I got some interesting backlash about that with people saying that that’s an ageist, that’s a discriminatory kind of observation. That’s a basic change in behavior. That is a very dangerous indicator of the direction of a society because societies cannot exist as primarily the society of the aged.
Last: No, you can’t because people need to care for the aged. This is like a biblical contact; it goes back a very long time. But, yeah, you need a certain ratio of workers to retirees to be able to care for the aged. You need that whether you are in a privatized setting where there is no social safety net, but especially if you live in a society where there is a social safety net the way they have in Japan, the way that we have here in America, the way we have in most of the Western countries. You know the problem here is that you see the ground for generational conflict. Just a few weeks ago, fortunately for me, in fact the week before my book came out, Japan’s finance minister held a press conference at which he said that it was time for the country’s elderly to “hurry up and die.” Now again, this is fine; he wasn’t actually rounding up old people and sending them off to camps, but it is important to note that he didn’t lose his job. I mean, this guy still has his job. He still works for the government. Imagine our treasury secretary saying something like that. He would not be treasury secretary by the end of the day, I don’t think. And what you have here is you have the ground seeded for generational conflict because you are very much in a zero-sum game. You cannot grow your way out of your problems because you’re shrinking in terms of GEP or shrinking in terms of population or shrinking in terms of productivity, and so what you have is old people who’ve been promised a certain claim, in terms of standard living on resources, and you have young people who, because they are in declining numbers, are going to be taxed at increasingly large percentages in order to sustain the old people. Something has to give.
Mohler: One of the things that has been noted, by the way—and this should definitely be noted—is that Japan’s finance minister is one of the nation’s wealthiest businessman and he doesn’t have to worry about affording whatever he needs or desires at whatever stage of life, including his advanced age, but what you have here is kind of a new form of life-boat ethics kind of running backwards with these demographic projections. And, you know, when you look at Japan, recent stories have come out, for instance, indicating that nursing homes there are having to develop robotic assistants to help with the care of elderly people because there just aren’t enough young people to care for the older people.
Last: Yeah, I mean, and think about that for a moment. That is the best-case scenario for Japan. Their best-case scenario involves a future in which the old folks’ homes are stuffed full of old folks and they’re all being tended to by robots. Like that’s their idea of a good, positive outcome. And when you sort of put it in that sort of stark reality and you then think about, okay, what do the bad outcomes look like? Again, you’re talking about total changes in the human condition—changes in the way that people live their lives and the way people conceptualize their lives—for the first time in modernity.
Mohler: So let’s talk about that for a moment. Before we even get to many of the worldview aspects of modernity, there’s some basic, I guess you might call, hygienic and technological aspects. And one of them is the fact that a drop in infant mortality was the leading edge of the cause for the drop in the human replacement rate because people, parents, no longer had to have as many children in order to have as many as they hoped and desired survive into adulthood.
Last: Yes. Exactly, and that was the biggest driver in all of this is the declining infant mortality. And one of the things I say over and over in the book is when we look at all the drivers in our declining fertility rate, many of them are very good developments. You know, the decline in infant mortality is a very good development. I would argue that the introduction of women into work forces across all sectors of the economy has been on net a very good development for us. But some of the drivers are not very good developments, like, for instance, the rise of divorce, the rise of cohabitation, and things which create just objectively worse outcomes for people. But you have in all of this these changes in how we live and that really gets to—as we said just a minute ago—it’s about modernity. It’s about how the modern world is changing the human condition and the human experience.
Mohler: Well let’s talk about that for a moment. So modernity comes along and it offers all kinds of goods. Amongst those goods are vast improvements in human health, radical technological and other innovations, in terms of medicine, not to mention fertility treatments and all the rest, and, yet, what modernity also brings is all kinds of distractiveness from what would have been considered the primary human responsibility of attention to human reproduction.
Last: Yes. And demographers have these theories about what’s been going on, and for a long time there was a theory; it was called the demographic transition. And that was the transition that was created in part by industrialization and in part by improvements in medicine and sanitation and the decline in the infant birth rate. And what people believed was fertility rates decline from being in the six or seven range, which is what they had been in the 1800s, and that they would then settle another replacement rate because they thought that what people naturally would want—when they were taken care of, when medicine was effective and universally available, people were no longer hungry—what everybody would naturally want was two children and would settle into a replacement-rate society. Well the problem is as fertility rates began shrinking they didn’t stop at two, and so anywhere where fertility decline has set in, it never stops at the replacement rate. It always continues diving towards the floor and heading down towards 1.4 or 1.5. And that became the question: So why are we stuck in dramatically sub-replacement-rate fertility? And the theory which was put forward to explain that was called then the theory of the second demographic transition. And what those guys argued—the two European demographers, Ron Lesthaeghe and Dirk van de Kaa—they argued very persuasively that the reason people didn’t stop at two was because once they mastered contraception, once they had conquered infant mortality, once they had access to food and higher standards of living and medicine and could do whatever they want—conceive of themselves however they want—they would change their worldview. They would no longer really see themselves as standing in a long line of people paying sort of fealty to the past and looking forward into the future. They would see themselves in their own self-actualization, the highest form of human existence, and this would then cause them to have fewer and fewer and fewer children. Now the theory of second demographic transition has not been proved. It is unprovable in the way that moral theories are; however, it seems to be very powerful, and the fact that when you look around the world, countries don’t stop at two. They always keep diving low. This is what we are experiencing in America. It suggests that there is something bigger going on.
Mohler: But there’s something bigger going on even than what we’re discussing here in the sense that we’re speaking upon the premise in this discussion as if we’re talking about married couples making the decision of how many children they will have when the total replacement rate, the fertility rate is based upon the entire population. And so we also have the intersection now of so many people who are never getting married or who are getting married at much older ages. The time in their life span they might even conceivably devote to the raising of children has been cut down significantly. And you also have the lifestyle now of childlessness that is more and more popular, especially amongst the cultural elites and the highly educated and all the rest, so we’re looking at a situation that isn’t as rational as married couples saying how many children they’re going to have; it’s a massive change in the value system of an entire civilization.
Last: Yeah, that’s exactly right. And in many ways there have been intentional changes. People have intentionally decided to cohabitate together over the years. People have intentionally decided to get divorce once divorce laws were reformed back in the 1970s, but in many other ways they’ve been unintentional changes. You know, college has been, it turns out, an enormous driver in the decline of fertility rates and that’s for several reasons. But just to tick three of them off very quickly: one, college debt. People say, when they ask them in the surveys, their college indebtedness caused them to postpone both marriage and childbearing. Two, the prospective expense of college adds about a fifth to the total cost of raising a child. But at the most gross level what college does is it robs you of time. People who used to get married here in America at 18 or 19, college then pushes back the age where you would even consider getting married to 22 or 23. The actual age of first marriage in America has crept all the way up to 27/28. The average age of first birth is 28/29. The biological window that we have to have babies is fairly immutable, unfortunately. It’s resistant to social planning, I’d like to say. And so as you cut down that window, people, either intentionally or not, they just find they don’t have the time they thought they were going to have and they don’t have then the families they thought they were going to have.
Mohler: But there is also the issue of money. Not only do you have colleges as part of that equation, but you have parents who are increasingly, just given the consumer mindset of the society around us, thinking of children as consumer goods. And they’re factoring in how much they’re going to cost and, of course, not only in terms of money, but time and investment and all the rest, but the money is right at the center of the equation.
Last: Yea, and, you know, in this way I don’t blame parents all that much because you have a bunch of things that have happened. I mean, first of all, middle-class wages in America have really been stagnant since the mid-1970s. The middle-class wealth has not grown from 1975 to today the way it did from 1945 to 1975. So you have a stagnant middle class and, at the same time, the cost of raising a child in real dollars has dramatically increased. You know, I run the numbers in the book, and today when you counter in college and you counter loss—either some lost spousal wages or daycare—a kid is going to wind up costing just an average, middle-class couple about 1.1 million dollars to have that first child. There’re some economies of scale as you have others, but that’s an enormous commitment. That’s a lot of money to ask parents to be spending, and that’s not if you’re buying the one thousand dollar strollers and fifty thousand dollar play-sets and all the really crazy bric-a-brac that’s out there. And all these things just make it harder and harder on parents.
Mohler: Without doubt, there are economic factors and economic implications of our fertility crisis, but we understand that even as human beings are economic creatures and you can never get away from the economic realities, human beings are far more than that. There are deeper worldview implications of what is at stake here. It’s never simply money and that’s demonstrated by the fact that even when human beings were unspeakably poor they continued to reproduce. Something very different has happened in our times and we better come to terms with exactly what that is.
In the beginning of your book, you actually have a very telling vignette. When you talk about a shopping area in a very upscale portion of metropolitan Washington, DC, and what you observe by, not just the stores that are there, but the stores that have left and those that come, is that, evidently, we aren’t having children, but we are having dogs.
Last: Yeah, so there is this little shopping center behind my house. My wife and I, before we had kids, we lived in Old Town Alexandria, a very toney, very hip, and, frankly, quite expensive suburb of Washington, DC, right along the Potomac River. And behind us was this little shopping center with a very, very trendy gastro-pub and a great coffee shop and a Russian gourmet food market and a children’s clothing store. The children’s clothing store went out of business after about 18 months. They were the first store to fail in the shopping center, and they were replaced by a doggy spa. This was a remarkable transformation because it left the little town where we were living in with I think only two clothing stores for kids in the town and I believe it was six or seven doggy-fancy-type boutiques. You know, there was a doggy bakery, a doggy spa, a doggy haircut place. They were everywhere. And when you then go and look at, not just the numbers, but also the changes in American life, we’ve become an amazingly sort of pet-fancy country. I mean, if you take somebody who’s a dog lover from 1965 and drop them into today’s modern world where we’ve changed estate planning laws so that dogs are allowed to inherit trust funds. We now have car insurance for dogs. We have medical insurance for dogs.
Mohler: Dogs psychiatrists.
Last: Dogs psychiatrists. We have in Old Town the little boarding kennel place for dogs. Each dog got their own little miniature house, their own air conditioner, their own television set, and a bed—not a dog bed, but a people bed—in their little house to sleep on. And then when you pick your doggy up after being there, you have doggy report cards; you know, how your doggy did every day, giving me little grades for how he played with others and socialized, etc. I mean I think if you brought a pet lover from 1965 and showed him the world we live in today, they would say, “This is insane.”
Mohler: I think if you can just bring a sane person into the world that we inhabit today, you’re going to see that. I saw one of these advertisements, by the way, that said that they have a streaming video of your pet at all times. So in 24 hours a day, if you get lonely, wherever you are in the world, you can pull up your pet on a streaming video. This is a weird world, and we’re going to talk about some of those worldview implications, but I want to ask about the politics of it for just a moment, Jonathan, because this is perplexing to me. As an observer and participant in this process for decades now, I don’t understand why people across the ideological spectrum do not sound the alarm on this, and I’ll tell you why. You look at labor unions and you look at how their numbers have been falling off precipitously; you look at—and I’m talking about those primarily on the political left—you look at those who are so concerned about the manufacturing sector; you look at those who are concerned with the public schools, and who think of the public schools as these great social engines that also represent incredible employment opportunities for people, what are they going to do without kids? I mean, that’s the Left. I know the conservatives have their own concerns; why aren’t the liberals saying, “We can’t possibly carry out a liberal project without children?”
Last: It’s really a mystery, and the irony in all this is that the guy who brought me the demographics is named Phillip Longman, a liberal democratic demographer and writer whose book that I read about all this stuff seven or eight years ago was what induced in me my obsession with this. Phil has been, I would say on this particular subject, studiously ignored by most of the Left. They just don’t want to engage him on this. And what I have seen—and everything you just said is exactly right. Just think about the prospect of government. If at its heart the liberal impulse is to perfect man’s experience on earth through government, which I think is not an unfair way of characterizing it, well you can’t do that and there’s no point in doing that without more kids, right? You can’t have the tax based upon the government programs that you want to perfect man’s experience on earth. And, besides which, there won’t be man left anymore. But the reaction to Phil and the reaction I’ve seen to other people who have written about demographics, the reaction, frankly, to my book from the Left has really just befuddled me because their instinctual reaction seems to be to rally against the idea that, A. people are important, or B. that anybody should ever suggest that it would be helpful to have babies. And I don’t quite know what’s driving that. I don’t know if this is all wrapped up still in the sexual revolution where maybe people on the Left think that to the extent that we say that any sort of lifestyle is sub-optimal it tantamounts to condemning sexual liberation and then is the first step on passing moral judgments on other parts of sexual liberation. Maybe that’s what’s driving them, but I don’t know. You know, frankly, the thing which surprises me is that I think actually there is a real Marxist, feminist critique of capitalism in all this which suggests that the free-market culture we live in and the capital system we exist in vastly underestimates the value of children; it vastly underestimates the value of parents; and prohibits women from achieving their fertility ideals, which, by the way, is what has happened in American over the last 40 years. What you have are women who simply aren’t having the number of children they say in surveys they wish they could have, so I expected that feminist reaction, and it just hasn’t happened.
Mohler: Jonathan, I would be tempted to buy that argument, but for those resolute and resilient things called facts. Such as the facts that if you take the two largest populations that have attempted to reverse the logic of capitalism—let’s just say the former Soviet Union and China—you’re looking at nations, especially in the case of Russia, actually is in a far worse demographic decline than is the United States and that long pre-dates, in terms of this pattern, the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Last: Absolutely and here’s the tension between the facts and the ideology. The facts are exactly as you say; they are absolutely true, but if you go back to the mid-1970s when the West was having its population bomb freak-out, I think it was Khrushchev who gave a big speech over in Russia, mocking Paul Ehrlich and the Western obsession with the population bomb, and he said, “If we had a hundred million new Russians tomorrow, even that would not be too many for us because the glorious people’s revolution welcomes more people,” etc., etc., etc. And so, yeah, the Communist system, in fact, did not help fertility. In fact, it suppressed fertility in many ways and almost all cases, but they were not ideologically opposed to more babies the way sort of modern liberalism here in the West really seems to be just ideologically opposed to babies in way which I find puzzling.
Mohler: Couple of thoughts I want to throw at you here. One of them has to do, again, with the politics of all this, and you mentioned earlier the fact that there has been a fall in middle-class wages, certainly in terms of any growth in those wages, and there has been, I think, a measurable decline in the social status of middle-class Americans and social and economic opportunity over the last two to three decades, but is no one doing the math on this in recognizing that you can’t have anything like the vast economic expansion that America had in the post-war, that is World War II years, without what also happened at the same time which was not accidently called the Baby Boom?
Last: It’s an amazing coincidence, right? Just like the coincidence of the fertility bust just as the sexual revolution was getting underway, and nobody notices these things. No; the answer to your question is that, no, nobody does notice them. Professional demographers and people who write academic papers about these things, they notice them. If you go over to Asia, you go over to Europe where people are 20 or 30 years ahead of us on this curve line, on this trend line, there is broad agreement among both the Left and the Right that their fertility rates are a source of enormous concern and enormous trouble. They are doing everything they can to try to come up with policy solutions to raise fertility. And, again, this is both the Left and the Right trying to sort of outbid one another in terms of their natalist policies, and over here in America we are sort of blithely ignorant of all this. And one of the hopes I have for the book was that it could be just a little boiling stone here in the pot to help us spur some discussion on our end.
Mohler: Well it certainly has here and I want to throw a couple of other things out in that light. When you start looking at, for instance, just to take North America or just the United States for a moment, the total fertility rate has been falling across the board, but it hasn’t been falling evenly. And so you have someone like Joel Kotkin who comes along and says, “Yet, you know if you look, you’re going to divide the States between blue states and red states.” There are blue states in the United States right now that are far below the total replacement rate and virtually all—and I emphasize this again—all of the growth is in red states. So, you know, it kind of gets to, you know, the principle that James Taranto of The Wall Street Journal pointed out years ago: one of the problems with the pro-choice argument or the abortion rights argument is they tend not to have babies who grow up to agree with them.
Last: Yea, this is exactly true. You know it’s so funny—quite visibly, it’s the third time I’ve mentioned Phil, but Phil Longman, my liberal demographer friend, one of the ways he tried to get the Left to care about this stuff was to write a piece in Foreign Policy Magazine called “Return of the Patriarchy,” and what he argued was, “Hey, look all the nice liberal people who listen to NPR and live in blue states and read the New York Times, we aren’t having enough babies and if we don’t step it up, then America’s going to be run by, you know, the type of NASCAR guys who read The Wall Street Journal and drag their knuckles on the ground.” I mean, Phil doesn’t really believe that stuff, but he was just sort of making a point.
Mohler: I remember the article well.
Last: And the Left, again, they didn’t care about it. But this is true. There’s a guy up at Harvard, Eric Kaufmann, who has written a book about religion and fertility, and what he suggests is that when you run the numbers and you look at three differential rates—they are the differentials between the secular fertility rate and the religious-practitioner fertility rate—then the differential between the attrition rate among religious believers (you know, how often they fall away) and then the pass-on rate of religion from the religious practitioners to their children, when you take all of those things into account, it is entirely possible that we are sitting at the high watermark of secularism right now in America. And that over the next 20-40 years we’re going to see the proportion of the country that are seculars, first, leveling off and then beginning a gradual decrease, and the proportion of the population which are orthodox practitioners of some faith increasing.
Mohler: Two data points to add to that: for instance, I’m sure you’ve seen the data out of Manhattan and the Jewish community that the vast growth there is among not just the orthodox but the ultra-orthodox, such that the ultra-orthodox who were a demographic margin in American Judaism at the mid-point of the twentieth century in New York City are going to predominate very quickly.
Last: Yeah and all of this is why in the very long run everything works out because fertility rates are not constant across populations and there will always be groups that have more children, so in the very long run those groups will inherit the earth and that will be fine. The reason I wrote the book and the reason I’m concerned is because the medium-run and short-run problems that we could encounter on our way to that equilibrium point out in the future could be such that it sort of wrecks the entire Western project and what are we leaving the people who will inherit the earth? You know, we’re leaving them quite a mess. The goal is to try to avoid calamity as possible before we get to the long run where everything works out.
Mohler: Well the long run you’re talking about, I think we need to make very clear, is a very long run.
Last: Right. No, I mean like eight or ten generations out. I mean in the very, very long run.
Mohler: And, by the way, I think I would agree that you could look at something like the plague, the series of plagues, experienced by Europeans in the seven centuries of the plague years and you can see that on the other side of that there was a new equilibrium that developed, but in the midst of that were horrors that modern people can’t even imagine.
Last: Yea, I mean people on the Left they always say to me, “Yeah, but after the Black Plague and all the population declining in Europe, then we had the Renaissance.” And I say, “Sure we had the Renaissance. It was 150 years later! And with a lifespan back then that’s almost five full generations. That’s five generations of unimaginable human misery. If that’s okay with you, that’s fine, but I myself would like to avoid that.”
Mohler: Well that is also so anecdotal because that’s just one cycle of plague; there were many, and one argument about the entire medieval period so often called the Dark Ages, thanks to Petrarch, you can look at this and recognize that a lot of this had to do with the fact that most human beings could do nothing other than tend to the horrifyingly urgent business of being able to eat and feed their children and survive to be able to breed a new generation. That used up virtually all the capital, all the energy, all the money, all the attention of the society. I don’t think we want to return to that.
Last: That’s exactly right.
Mohler: Well when you look at your book, by the way, I think of such of things as the fact that in San Francisco right now, in an American city, there recently was the report that San Franciscans have more dogs than children, so it’s not just Alexandria. It’s a large metropolitan area such as San Francisco. The worldview implications of this, you mention Hoffman’s work, but let me come back to it for a moment. Just in terms of the research you’ve done, to what extent does a worldview, explicitly a Christian—you mentioned religious practitioners—let me just say those who are committed to a Christian worldview, does that show up as a different demographic sector here?
Last: No; what shows up as a different demographic sector is church attendance. That’s one of the things that is so fascinating about this. If you go back to the data from the turn of the century, from the early twentieth century, you see big fertility stratifications based on religious sect, so Mormons the highest fertility levels, Catholics just below them, mainline Protestants below them, Jews below them. There weren’t very many nonbelievers back then. Beginning in the 1950s and 1960s, those sectarian differences began contracting and collapsing and what emerged in their place was differences in religiosity so that today what you see is a very distinct fertility rate for people who never attend church services, another very distinct fertility rate from people who go twice a year, another fertility rate right around replacement, by the way, for people who go once a month, and then a very healthy fertility—right around 2.35—for people who go to services once a week. And it doesn’t matter if those are Catholic services, evangelical services, Jewish services, Mormon services; it doesn’t matter what. All that matters is that you show up, and I find that to be a fantastically evocative piece of data because I think what it’s saying is it’s saying a lot about what it takes to get people over the hump and committing to having families. What it’s saying is something I think bigger than any single religion, single religious tenet; you know, every religion has its own sort of version of “be fruitful and multiply.” I don’t think that’s what’s driving people to have kids; I think it’s something more basic about the very theistic view of the world, which is these are people who view the present differently than everybody else. People who don’t go to church for them the present is all inclusive, it is everything. The present is the entirety of their worldview. The people who go to church once a week, what I would argue is that the present actually has a much diminished place in their worldview. The present is important, the present is consequential, but it is only viewed in light of obligations to pass in hopes of a future.
Mohler: I think that’s very insightful. I want to push just a little bit, though, because as I look at the data, they do tend to indicate that, again, to take the Jewish example just given, even beyond mere participation by attendance, at least in terms of groups, the groups that are most likely to have the highest birth rates are those that within their own religious-worldview tradition are the most traditional and conservative and orthodox.
Last: Yeah, and that doesn’t surprise me because, again, these are people who really believe. I sort of closed the book by saying this, I would hate to spoil it for people who might be wanting to go read it, but at the end of the day, having kids is the most serious thing that you can do and the reason you do it is because you believe in something very, very seriously. And whether that thing is God, whether it is secular humanism as a concept, whether it is America or the Western Project, if you believe in anything seriously enough, then children must follow eventually. I think that’s exactly what this is among orthodox believers. People who are more intensely orthodox are more serious in their belief and that’s why children follow.
Mohler: Your book is filled with what in one chapter you call very bad things, which is a very honest assessment of where the data would take us, but when you begin the book, you say you’re not selling doom. In other words—oh and, by the way, you say, “If selling doom will sell more books, then we’re doomed,” but I understand that. But you’re not selling doom. In other words, there are very many bad things, bad trends, very, very many dangerous and ominous things out there facing us and some of them all the more depressing in one sense because there appears to be no way to reverse the trends or to fix them, but you still have a rather hopeful disposition and I guess I got to the end of the book and I thought, “Okay, Jonathan, why?” In other words, if I take the very bad things that you look at in this book and I just take them on their face value, I came up with a very bad analysis of where these very bad things are going to take us.
Last: Yea, you know, the reason I say that we’re not doomed—I say it to begin the book and to end the book—is because one of the things that drives me nuts is guys who write about this stuff with like the voice of total authority, as if they had just gotten out of a time machine from the future and were reporting what it’s going to look like. I just feel like the limits of social science are so near—they are even nearer than we might think, even people who are skeptical of social science—that we really need to be modest about our projections for the future because none of us have a crystal ball. All we can really do is try diligently to understand how we got to here right now. You know, try to understand all the trends, all the history, all the data that got us to where we are right now; to try to understand very honestly where right now really is, you know, if you sort of take all the Heisenberg Variation Principle and stuff into account. Try to understand where right now is and then look at what the possibilities for the future are. And, you know, you can say that one possibility is more likely than another, but always understanding trends reverse themselves. Trends don’t always go to the moon. If you looked at the decline of the American fertility rate from 1800 to 1930, no one in 1935 would have believed that ten years later, the American fertility rate was going to double when the Baby Boom began. There was no reason for us to believe that would have happened, and so this is why we should never get too pessimistic no matter how dark things look and how very bad the very bad things are that one can see on the horizon. We should always understand the future is malleable. Demography is not destiny. It determines the realm of the possible, but isn’t destiny, and that’s why I hope that the book is at least slightly hopeful.
Mohler: That’s true, but, once again, I want to go back to Phillip Longman who points out that the one thing we do know, however, is that nonexistent people will not breed. And, so, just looking at what the already existing trends indicate, it would take an incredible resurgence of reproductive activity amongst those now living and in generations to come to make much of an impact here, but we can live in hope.
Last: Yeah, we can live in hope. And I go to the ideal fertility rate, which is both a source of blind terror and a source of great hope. Demographers measure what’s called “ideal fertility,” that is the number of children people say they would like to have in a perfect world. And the source of hope is that in America our fertility rate for all that we’ve heard about social changes over the last 40 years and about how the Borgia Family Model is no longer attractive to people, etc., etc., etc., here in America our ideal fertility rate is very high. It’s 2.5, that’s more than half a child higher than actual fertility, but, more importantly, it has been 2.5 for two generations now. It’s been rock solid, so here in America the problem isn’t that people don’t want families. Many people don’t want families. I say in the book, I’m not here to argue that you should have kids. I say, “God bless you; I celebrate your choice,” but your life is not the median experience in America and most people still want kids the same way they did 40 years ago. So our problem here in America is bridging that divide; our problem is finding ways to help people achieve their fertility ideals. There is not a lot of research suggesting that is a doable thing or certainly nobody has really succeeded in doing that yet. I think that that’s a more doable, a more sellable proposition than trying to convince people who don’t want kids into having them.
Mohler: Jonathan V. Last’s most recent book, What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, has been out for just a few weeks itself, but, Jonathan, I want to turn to you and say I know at this point you’re already interested in another project and probably already writing it. What would that be?
Last: Oh, gosh. I have been circling other things and trying to figure out what a next book would be like, but I haven’t been able to settle on something because, the truth is, I’ve lived with this subject for about seven years. It took me three years to write this book. When I started this book, I had a two-week old child; when the book came out my third kid was four-weeks old. So my life changed completely, I would say, during the course of preparing this, and I can’t really imagine, right now with a two-month old kid at home—and I have a four-year old and a two-year old—I can’t really imagine living with another subject right now. So put that on the back burner at least for a few more months.
Mohler: That’s sounds like a very wise decision and I appreciate so much the time that you have spent with us today, and I pray God’s blessings upon you, your family, and your children, and, as the back cover of your book says, all of you together in your minivan. There’s the picture.
Last: Thank you so much.
Mohler: Well what should we expect when no one’s expecting? What a great book title. It points to this demographic reality that itself points to something far more basic and that is a worldview reality. If you were listening closely, you heard Jonathan Last say that the most sophisticated understanding of the differences that worldview would play in this had to do with church attendance, what he called religious practice. And he pointed to the fact that research demonstrates very clearly that the increased attendance at church services or religious services translates into a far higher fertility rate, and, of course, as other data indicate what we’re looking at is the fact that people who have a worldview that is more orthodox, according to their own religious tradition, are far more likely to have a higher number of babies. This is true in the ultra-orthodox Jewish community. It’s true in the more traditionalist Roman Catholic community. It’s true amongst the more conservative evangelicals in America. It’s true among Mormons and others. I think more is going on here than church attendance. Although I don’t want to underplay the kind of peer context and community that you find in churches and synagogues and religious groups that say having babies is important, and those who are having babies are to be honored, and those who sacrifice to be parents are to be respected. I think it’s far more than that. I think there is a very clear worldview indicator that is going on here: those who believe that God’s glory is found in marriage, and, in marriage, in all the goods that come with marriage, including the gift of children. Those who believe in the future as grounded not in demographic projections but in the very rule and reign of God are far more likely to have the confidence to have children, to have the commitment to have children, perhaps, even the desire to have children, and then the willingness to make the necessary sacrifices to have and to raise children.
When we look at the demographic realities these do point to the very bad things that Jonathan Last so clearly documents in this book. Very bad things, such as the fact that you have not only a birth dearth, as many have called it, but you also have vast increase in the number of those living who are in advanced stages of life, indeed, the elderly and the biggest phenomenon coming to us there is going to be the rapid rise in the very aged. And then you look at the amount of cultural and social economic and political attention that we devoted to that sector and you realize without an increasing number of young people coming behind, we’re really going to be in trouble. Looking at Japan is just one snapshot of the reality where there are not going to be enough people working to take care of the people who are not, and those who are working are those who are the young and those who are entering the workforce and those who can continue in it. What we’re looking at here is a catalogue of very bad things, but human beings have seen these very bad things before. The amazing thing about our current situation is the refusal to see them and to acknowledge these things and then to come to terms with them. As I pointed out in the conversation with Jonathan Last, I am completely perplexed why those on the Left as well as those on the Right do not see the problem in terms of America’s ideological divide because what is common to both is the absolute necessity of a future if there’s to be a continuation of the project in which each is committed. There seems to be, however, amongst both the Left and many on the Right, not just a failure, but a refusal to see these realities. And, going beyond where Jonathan Last would take us in his book, I have to say as a Christian theologian, I think the reason for that is a willful blindness and rebellion against a God-given order that goes far deeper to the human heart than demography can ever itself point. It was good conversation with Jonathan Last. I appreciate so much his book and you will too. Again, the title of the book is What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster.
Thanks again to my guest, Jonathan Last, for thinking with me. Before I close, I want to direct your attention to my new book, The Conviction to Lead: 25 Principles for Leadership that Matters. My concern is to develop effective leaders who have more than administrative skill, who develop more than mere vision. Leaders need to be able to change the hearts and minds of those they lead. In other words, they need to develop the conviction to lead.
Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.