Jonathan V. Last, What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster (New York: Encounter Books, 2013).
I was prepared to like this book, for reasons both obvious and subtle. The obvious: my wife is expecting our second child to make his appearance any day now, so after a long Lent, I was ready to kick off the Easter season with some self-congratulatory meditations on how my wife and I were responsible for saving the world through procreation. You’re welcome.
The subtle reason: I recently finished reading John Locke’s 2nd Treatise of Government with my philosophy students. Locke, as you may recall, famously wrote in Section 40 of the Treatise that “it is labour indeed that puts the difference of value on every thing.” And since it is man’s labor that gives things value, Locke went on to draw the obvious conclusion about what makes for national strength in Section 42: “This shews how much numbers of men are to be preferred to largeness of dominions.” In other words, “it’s the population, stupid.” You can have good laws, vibrant educational initiatives so that no child gets left behind, and a less-than-astronomical national debt, but if you run short of people–well, then you really have a problem, don’t you?
Anyway, I wanted to like Jonathan Last’s book. And I did like it near the end. But be forewarned: if you have children, most of the book is likely to depress you. It will remind you of all that is wrong with your world. And I don’t mean the world, I mean your world, the daily struggles you have as a parent in contemporary America. I can’t speak for everyone, but I have found it psychologically healthy to ignore most of these as best I can–but Last will ruthlessly remind you of them: the struggle between having children and advancing one’s career, the superiority of the single-family home for raising children, the cost of child care, and oh yes, the damn car seat laws.
All of these pressures you try not to notice will be paraded before you surrounded by a wall of seemingly unassailable numbers and statistics. Last’s frequent appeals early in the book not to be depressed by his analysis (“demography is not destiny“) are a rather cold comfort for those of us who have actually experienced these problems firsthand. As Last seems to like reminding us, “raising children is difficult, resource intensive, socially inhibiting, and (if we can be candid) often unpleasant, it is not an exercise many people want to put themselves through multiple times.” Thanks, buddy. At least as a graduate student my social life was not that great before it got “inhibited.”
If you can persevere to the final chapter, “How to Make Babies,” it gets a little better. Last has some fairly sensible proposals for how to get the government out of people’s way and let them multiply. And he is able from time to time to crystalize his heavily statistical argumentation into some memorable lines, my two personal favorites being “Old Town <Alexandria, VA> is like a wildlife preserve for yuppies” and “If Vladimir Putin did not exist, the Russian people would have invented him.”
Still, you aren’t likely to enjoy the book. And, it seems to me, as long as you approach it with that in mind, you will be fine. Learn from my mistakes.