The Gist: Schedule date nights with your spouse as soon and as often as possible.
A review of What to Expect When No Ones Expecting by Jonathan Last.
You haven’t had enough kids.
At least, not enough to save America.
Figure 1. Who will wave the flag when you’re gone?
Even if you beat replacement – that is, you had more than 2 kids to account for you and your spouse eventually departing – there are still too many people like my parents who failed to spread their risk and only had one. And too many people like me, past 30 and childless (Average for postgraduate modernity, an embarrassment in every prior century).
Figure 2. “30! You should be a grandfather by now. Who will inherit the Duchy?”
Jonathan Last’s What to Expect When No One’s Expecting is a book about the frightening demography of depopulation.
Who cares? Couldn’t fewer people mean shorter lines, less traffic, lower pollution, and more stuff for the people left over?
If you believe that, move to Detroit.
Figure 3. No waits for robberies. Only police.
There are three big reasons why we need to continuously grow our population.
First, our reckoning is fast approaching from entitlement economics: in the coming years, we will have fewer taxpayers and more demands on government services. If we somehow manage to reform entitlements, there’s still…
Second, places with smaller proportions of young people tend to be significantly less entrepreneurial and innovative. There is an absolute lower number of creators willing to challenge conventional ideas and able to take risks. Because of their relative population, there are fewer young people in positions of authority. And there is a smaller pool of customers who will instantly adopt new technology, therefore limiting the capital for innovators.
Relatedly, Adam Smith observed “the most decisive mark of the prosperity of any country is the increase of the number of its inhabitants.” Nobel prize winning economist Simon Smith Kuznets explains: “More population means more creators and producers, both of goods along established production patterns and of new knowledge and inventions.” This can be taken too far – you’d rather be dealing with Hong Kong’s problems than Pakistan’s. But Hong Kong’s potential is inherently limited by its small size.
Third and finally, there’s the prospect of war: “The Pentagon now spends 84 cents on pensions for every dollar it spends on basic pay. And whatever form our future military does take, families with just one child will be less willing to accept military casualties.” The good news? “The Chinese entitlement scheme is even worse than America is: it covers only 365 million Chinese citizens and it is already unfunded to the tune of 150% of the country’s GDP.” Then again, no data exists on whether ISIS’ pension is fully funded.
Figure 4. “Our most devious strategy yet: encouraging reservists to retire in Shanghai”
We are not quite as doomed as most of the industrialized world. Japan and Italy’s “fertility rates (now around 1.4) are within a range demographers call ‘lowest-low.’ This is a mathematical tipping point at which a country’s population could decline by 50 percent within 45 years. It is a death spiral from which, demographers believe, it might be impossible to escape. Then again, that’s just theory. Modern history has never seen fertility rates so low.”
Our total fertility rate (TFR) is 1.93 children per woman but demographers believe we really need to be above 2.
Immigration is the primary reason our population is expanding: Immigrants add to our population when they enter but they also have more children than natives over the course of their lifetimes. “Between 2000 and 2010, the total population of the United States increased by 27.3 million, yet more than half of the entire increase came just from Hispanics. Most of that increase was due to fertility. Between 2000 and 2010, a net of 7.02 million people immigrated to the United States from south of the border. Which means that, over [that] decade, 30 percent of America’s total population growth was the result of the labors of a group that makes up only 16 percent of the country.” Interestingly, “immigrants to America tended to have higher fertility rates than the country women they left behind.” And yet immigrants bring their own challenges. But for context, “When you break it out by demographic group, you see that black women have a healthy TFR of 1.96. White women, on the other hand, have a TFR of 1.79. Our national average is only boosted because Hispanic women are doing most of the heavy lifting, having an average of 2.35 babies.”
History offers important context for our fertility decline: “In 1800, the fertility rate for white Americans was 7.04… By 1890, the fertility rate for whites had fallen to 3.87 [before] settling at 2.22 in 1940.” Then the Baby Boom exploded and collapsed. “For 20 years, the fertility rate spiked, reaching a height in 1960 of 3.53 for whites and 4.52 for blacks… From a combined TFR of 3.7 in 1960 (the end of the Baby Boom), the fertility rate in the United States dropped to 1.8 in 1980, a 50 percent decline in a single generation.” We’ve had a decent uptick since 1980 but, again, primarily due to immigrants.
So why haven’t we yet seen a population decline? The answer has to do with demographic momentum – and the fact that the Baby Boomers are mostly still alive.
Figure 5. An attempt at an actually useful though very simplified cartoon. Demographic momentum means that until the last big generation dies off, our population will appear to be growing. Here’s an example that starts with two Baby Boomer couples but ends with their passing.
So, how did our fertility rate get so low?
First, parents have fewer kids because children survive longer in America than elsewhere or in the past. The reason the official replacement number has to be above 2 is because kids die. In Third World countries, replacement actually has to be much higher. In America, “in 1850, 2 out of every 10 white babies and 3.4 out of every 10 black babies died during infancy.” Much more died before adulthood. With more children surviving, intentional parents can reasonably plan the number of family members.
Second, children have evolved from economic assets to family costs. Not so long ago, kids served two extremely practical purposes for parents: they were able to produce additional income for the family while they were young and take care of their elderly parents down the line. Whereas in the past parents were heavily economically incentivized to have more kids, now they’re fiscally punished.
Kids were once considered useful farmhands; now they’re expensive dependents. “It is commonly said that buying a house is the biggest purchase most Americans will ever make. Well, having a baby is like buying six houses, all at once. Except you can’t sell your children, they never appreciate in value, and there’s a good chance that, somewhere around age 16, they’ll announce: ‘I hate you.’” Apparently as concerned with raising kids as crops, the U.S. Department of Agriculture projects that the cost to raise an American child born in 2015 will be on average the suspiciously precise $233,610 – a more than 20% increase from their 1960 projection in real dollars. And yet Last notes this is a significant undercount because it does not fully consider “three big-ticket items”: “childcare, college tuition, and mothers’ foregone salaries.”
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Government has made having kids even more expensive. Consider the example of requiring children to sit in special car seats, first enacted in 1977 by Tennessee. “If you had five small children in 1977—a situation not at all rare back then—few vehicles could accommodate enough car seats to transport the entire brood at the same time… In 1976, when car seat laws were sweeping from sea to shining sea, 16 percent of women had four children and 20 percent had five or more. Today, the percentage of women who have five or more children is 1.8 percent… (As a side note, they didn’t radically transform auto safety, either. The most optimistic estimate is that between 1975 and 2005, car seats saved a grand total of 7,896 lives. Every one of them is a miracle for which we should be thankful. But saving 263 lives a year isn’t exactly conquering polio.)”
Figure 7. Fertility really plummeted when the safety advocates convinced the government to require that each child be under the supervision of three adults at all times.
But there’s another fascinating story about entitlements. To quote Last at length:
“Since the 1970s, young white men have seen a 40 percent decline in income relative to their fathers (young black men have seen a relative decline of 60 percent), largely because of taxes. So Social Security and Medicare have placed a serious and increasing burden on families, making it more difficult to afford the—also increasing—cost of children… There were two larger consequences of establishing government-funded programs for care of the elderly. The first was that children were no longer needed to look after their retired parents. Where people’s offspring had for centuries seen to the financial needs of their parents, retired people with no offspring now had access to a set of comparable benefits. They could free-ride on the system. This new system undermined the ancient rationale for childbearing. In a world in which childbearing has no practical benefit—the government will care for you if you don’t have children to do so—parenthood becomes a simple act of consumption. People have babies because they want to, seeing it as either an act of self-fulfillment or as some kind of moral imperative… You can spend your $ 1.1 million raising a child to become a productive worker, but an increasing share of his labor will go to the government. And the government hands out equal shares of retirement benefits from his labor both to those who spent the money raising children and those who didn’t.”
Demographers guess this decreases the total fertility rate by 0.5 points – the difference between replacement and disaster!
Third and finally, a constellation of social changes has limited the window in which women have children. Because of workforce participation, time in school, debt, and new norms, women are delaying childbearing toward the close of their biological viability. The invention of contraceptives has given women more control over when they get pregnant. The legalization of abortion has given women control over whether they deliver their kids. Sex outside marriage has led to more kids born out of wedlock, less likely to be joined by others in the same family unit. And “the routinization of divorce allowed married couples to split before they finished having children”
From the late 1930s until the late 1960s, Gallup asked Americans how many children they’d ideally like to have and nearly two-thirds consistently said three or more. Today, only one third of Americans want three or more kids. Last reminds us: “with easy access to birth control and abortion, increased educational demands, and the rising cost of raising children, the ‘desired fertility’ metric is an upward limit on ‘actual fertility.’ In practice, actual fertility is often much lower than desired.” In 2011, 58% of women wanted two or fewer children – but 72% wound up there.
The decline in desire can be traced to the new opportunities in the workforce – but also just looking around and seeing what other people were doing. Interestingly, “from 1879 to 1930, American men and women graduated from college at roughly the same rate.” The GI Bill dramatically altered the equation. “By 1947, 2.3 men graduated from college for every woman.” Women started going to college in greater numbers over the coming decades to the point where today more women graduate than men. Simultaneously, until about 1965, the percentage of women working outside the home was about 44%. Today, it’s about 70%. The desires to get educated before having kids, to pay off some debt before having kids, to advance in career before having kids all contribute to delays.
But “delaying children is not as simple as it sounds, because while our social institutions are often malleable, biology is not. Between the ages of 24 and 34, a woman’s chance of becoming infertile increases from 3 percent to 8 percent. By 35, half of women trying to get pregnant over the course of 8 months will not succeed. After 35 it gets even dicier. By age 39, a woman has a 15 percent chance of being unable to conceive at all. And by a woman’s 43rd birthday, her chances of getting pregnant are nearly zero. All of which is why today, 1 out of every 100 babies born in the United States is created via in vitro fertilization. You can only push off pregnancy for so long… In 2009, fully 37 percent of all births were to women over the age of 30.”
Ironically, “Margaret Sanger willed the Pill into existence so that the educated classes would not be ‘shouldering the burden of the unthinking fecundity of others.’ Instead, it has been the educated middle class—Sanger’s people—who have used the Pill to tamp down their fertility.” Surprising to me, only 17% of women aged 15-44 use the Pill; less surprising, that percentage is concentrated in the educated. As a result, the total fertility rate of women who have graduated from college is 1.78. For women with a graduate degree, it’s 1.61. For context, during the period in which China aggressively enforced a one-child policy, forcing women to get abortions or sterilization, their birthrate was 1.54.
Only so many people use birth control effectively (or at all), and so accessible abortion also prevents childbirth. “In 2000 the RAND corporation tried to estimate the numerical effect of abortion on the TFR. It concluded that for white America, abortion on demand lowered the fertility rate by about 0.08—or 4 percent. Among black Americans the effect was much stronger: the Roe regime pushed fertility down by 0.34—or 13 percent.”
And finally the instability of relationships has taken its toll on our fertility rate. “There’s a 64 percent chance that a first marriage will last at least 10 years. Fifty percent of cohabitations break down after just the first year…The chance that a person in 1910 who was married would someday be divorced was around 15 percent; by 1960 the odds rose to around 32 percent; and by 2000 to around 45 percent.” Married couples can just have more kids. Finding another partner, especially as a single mom, has big costs that results in fewer children, regardless of desire.
So what can be done? Last concludes: “The government cannot get people to have children they do not want. However, it can help people have the children they do want.”
Examples abound from throughout history around the globe of countries trying to spur their populations to have more kids. Almost nothing works. “Comrade Stalin announced the creation of the motherhood medal, given to any woman who bore at least six children… In ancient Sparta, fathers who sired three sons were exempted from Garrison duty and those with the four lads to their name paid no taxes at all. Caesar Augustus levied a ‘bachelor tax’ on unmarried aristocratic men.” Singapore, which waged an incredibly successful campaign to reduce their birth rate, reversed course and attempted to increase it by offering subsidies, preferred entry to good schools, relocating grandparents nearby — and nothing has worked. Just about the only thing that HAS worked is in the country of Georgia, where the local religious leader, Patriarch Ilia II promised that “he would personally baptize any child born to parents who already had two or more children.” The birth rate jumped an astounding 20%. America’s only hope may be Beyoncé agreeing to only perform concerts for mothers of three or more kids.
A significant challenge is that state tax breaks, subsidies, and encouragements tend to influence the timing of kids’ births, rather than the number. If you are delaying having kids because you don’t think you can afford them, a government grant may cause you to have them earlier, but not many more than you already wanted. “The consensus is that subsidies produce returns mostly at the margins: Studies of European countries show that for every 25 percent increase in benefits, fertility increases by 0.6 percent in the short term and 4 percent in the long term.”
One interesting suggestion about Social Security which may help alleviate demographic problems but would exacerbate financial ones: “Phillip Longman proposes a ‘Parental Dividend’ system by which a couple’s FICA taxes would be reduced by one-third with the birth of their first child, by two-thirds with the birth of a second, and then eliminated completely with the third (until the children turn 18).”
Ultimately, Last has “three golden rules for natalism.” First, “Below a certain point, there’s no turning back.” Once you drop below 1.5 kids per woman, it’s practically impossible to get back on track.
Second, “any efforts to stoke fertility must be sustained over several generational cohorts… A four-year tax credit is useless. So is a long, but feckless, string of hopscotch initiatives, like Japan’s. What you need is a serious, decades-long commitment to family growth.”And those efforts need to be concentrated on making life easier for parents, as opposed to specifically orienting toward having more kids because…
Third, “people cannot be bribed into having babies.” Because kids are a lot of work! (I know my parents had their hands full with just one. But that may be a special case.)
Figure 8. Click here to buy What to Expect When No One is Expecting. 7/10. An amusing guide to a scary subject. The book touches on but does not fully address some big questions: should we be indifferent about who is having kids as we strive to exceed replacement? Is a larger fertility number inherently good or is there a sweet spot above replacement? There are also some interesting insights tangentially related to fertility, like the fact that premarital cohabitation started among the poor in the Depression, not among hippies in the Sixties. The book ultimately makes a subversive argument: society needs to empower women to have the number of children they want, a number higher than they currently have. Of course, the book fails to note the truly correct answer to its title.
PS. If you really want a blast from the political past, read Teddy Roosevelt addressing the National Congress of Mothers: “There are many good people who are denied the supreme blessing of children, and for these we have the respect and sympathy always due to these who, from no fault of their own, are denied any of the other great blessings of life. But the man or woman who deliberately foregoes these blessings, whether from viciousness, coldness, shallow-heartedness, self-indulgence, or mere failure to appreciate aright the difference between the all-important and the unimportant – why, such a creature merits contempt as hearty as any visited upon the soldier who runs away in battle, or upon the man who refuses to work for the support of those dependent upon him, and who though able-bodied is yet content to eat in idleness the bread which others provide.”
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I read over 100 non-fiction books a year (history, business, self-management) and share a review (and terrible cartoons) every couple weeks with my friends. Really, it’s all about how to be a better American and how America can be better. Look forward to having you on board!