Whispers of Doom
Jonathan V. Last on Faith, Hope & the Coming Population Implosion
by Les Sillars
The overall U.S. birthrate fell in 2011 to its lowest point since the government started tracking it in 1920. It now sits at about 63 births per 1,000 women in the prime childbearing ages of 15–44, according to a Pew Research Center study released late last year.
That's a bad sign of a problem that goes far beyond the United States, according to Weekly Standard writer Jonathan V. Last, author of the recently released What to Expect When No One's Expecting (Encounter Books, 2013).
Les Sillars (LS): The subtitle of your book is America's Coming Demographic Disaster, yet you emphasize that it's hard to say what will happen, and some even speculate about positive effects of a "population implosion."
Jonathan Last (JL): You don't want to run around yelling, "We're doomed! We're doomed!" So I tried not to do that. Yet I do kind of think that we're doomed. So I try to walk around whispering, "We're doomed."
LS: How soon until we're doomed?
JL: Probably the 2050s, which is when you see the global population weaken and begin its contraction. Nothing will collapse in the next ten years. And in the very long term, as my demographer friend likes to say, everything will be fine, because birthrates are not constant across populations. In America, for instance, women who attend church weekly have a very healthy fertility rate of 2.5 or 2.6 children each. For secular women, it's very low, something like 1.5. So in the very long run, the orthodox will literally inherit the earth [laughs].
We're not going to breed ourselves into extinction. What worries me is, what will they inherit? Will we have a world in which social structures have collapsed? We like to think of Western civilization as being very stable. I'm of the view that it's probably not; it's something that needs to be protected and treasured.
LS: What's going to happen?
JL: Throughout the course of recorded history you have had population contractions. They have always been part and parcel of disease, war, pestilence, and economic backwardness. Certain people, chief among them the environmentalists, say this time it will be different, this time it will be great, but there is very little reason to believe that this time will be different.
In America we are kept in a positive population situation only by our massive immigration. There are reasons to suspect that immigration is going to decrease in the near term, and one of the chief findings of the Pew study is that immigrant women are becoming more like American-born women in terms of birthrates.
LS: People tend to think of this problem as a shortage of taxpayers to cover the cost of care for all the old people, leading to economic crisis. What are the other problems?
JL: There are second-order effects on, for example, capital pools. Young people look to invest their capital aggressively, whereas older people are not interested in risky investments. That creates giant macro-economic shifts. Japan has seen this already.
In the political arena there could be a kind of aged-based class conflict, where older people need to vote themselves benefits or vote themselves public policies that support their way of life.
And then you've got foreign policy. If the U.S., because of a shortage of young men to serve in the military, can't project power across the world, then the world becomes a more dangerous place.
And it's easy to see why China could become highly unstable in the next 20 years, for example. By 2050, the country's population will be falling by 20 million every five years. One of every four citizens will be over the age of 65. China didn't set up a pension scheme until 2000, it covers only 365 million Chinese, and it's unfunded to the tune of 150 percent of the country's GDP. China is already experiencing its first shortage of manual labor and is preparing for a coming crunch in manufacturing. Far from worrying about China's economy overtaking America's, we should be preparing to manage a weakened and unstable China.
LS: And it will also destabilize in part because of the projected surplus of unemployed, unmarried young men? In cultures that favor males, a decline in birthrates quickly produces a shortage of girl babies.
JL: Throughout all of human history, unmarried, unemployed young men are problems. In small numbers, they turn to crime, but you can manage organized crime. But China, because of that and its one-child policy, is going to have a couple of hundred million unemployed, unmarried young men, and at that point, you don't worry about crime, you worry about revolution.
LS: What are some of the most important causes of birthrate decline?
JL: Well, there's the falling infant mortality rate, which is great, so people need fewer babies to reach a given number of children. People are marrying later in life, making it more difficult to have multiple births. Another [factor] is the rise of cohabitation, which produces fewer children. There is an increase in female education, which, again, is a good thing, but it has consequences.
Abortion is certainly a factor. It is very significant for the fertility rates of African-Americans. Obviously, not all of the 50 million or so babies who have been aborted would have been born sans Roe v. Wade, but most of them might have been, and that changes everything.
LS: Is the social safety net a reason not to have children?
JL: For thousands of years the primary function of children was to take care of you when you got old. Once you have a social safety net—and this is not to say that Social Security is a terrible idea—then the state takes on that role. But that creates a free-rider problem. It costs something like $1.1 million, counting college and lost wages, to raise a child. So if you're spending $1.1 million to create a new taxpayer, but you're getting the benefits at the same rate as someone who did not spend the $1.1 million—it's a tragedy of the commons.
LS: What's the "Second Demographic Transition"?
JL: The First Demographic Transition occurred in different countries at different times, but typically right around industrialization. In the United States, it was in the 1850s. Up to that point, people had lots of children, but the family was the center of daily existence. At that point, people began placing children, as they became slightly more rare, at the center of their lives in new ways. Parents began, not spoiling their children, but spending quite a lot of time and resources ensuring that their children got the best that they could.
The Second Demographic Transition is a theory put out by a couple of European demographers. They posit that as societies progress and move up the chart of Maslow's higher-order needs, the individual displaces children. In the West, this generally began when you would expect, about 1968. And so, to the extent that you are involved in family formation at all, it is now in pursuit of your own self-actualization. You get married because that makes you happy; you have a child because you want to. All of this, they suggest, is because of the small-l liberal values that have predominated in Western culture since the 1960s—tolerance, secularism, etc. And as that happens, they believe, you pass through the replacement fertility rate, and from there, well . . .
LS: And they would say this is not a bad thing?
JL: They would say this is a very good thing, that it is a utopia, a multicultural paradise. The whole world will be like Seattle.
LS: Did the things on which the West built a very successful and prosperous society—especially a focus on the value of the individual—contain the seeds of its own destruction?
JL: I would say so. This is why it has always been crucial to have civil society there to temper this impulse of Enlightenment liberalism. When James Q. Wilson wrote about this in his book on marriage, that's precisely where he located the problem. The only things you have to [help you] resist these impulses are the institutions of civil society—church, family, community—which are larger than oneself and which mediate that impulse to focus on self. The problem is the tension between Enlightenment values and orthodox religious values.
LS: What do you mean in saying that modernity has turned us into a "deeply unserious people"?
JL: It is difficult in the modern world to come up with a convincing argument for why you should care about things larger than yourself. If you don't, then all of this—the idea that there should be a future, that there should be a West—becomes very difficult to define and hold onto. And at the root is, why have babies? If all the research says that babies make you less happy, and it does, and if you believe that happiness is the paramount virtue, then you're going to have a very different future than if you believe that there are other, larger things.
I wonder, if you strip away all of the disincentives, all the market distortions, do people still want to have children at all? And I don't know. The case of Singapore is what worries me. Singapore does everything that I would tell people to do to have more children, it provides all the economic incentives, and it just does not work—their fertility rate is at 1.2 or something. It's unbelievable.
LS: So maybe it's not so much decadence as a failure of hope?
JL: Yes. •
Les Sillars teaches journalism at Patrick Henry College in Virginia and is on staff at WORLD magazine.