JONATHAN LAST'S What to Expect When No One is

William E. May
August 19, 2013
Reproduced with Permission
Culture of Life Foundation

Last's Thesis

America's fertility rate is falling precipitously and if nothing is done to reverse this situation the nation's population will no longer be able to care for the swelling numbers of the elderly, or have adequate financial resources to maintain a military force capable of resisting hostile and populous nations. This is the thesis of Jonathan Last's recent book, What To Expect When No One is Expecting.

America's Falling Fertility

In Last's Introduction, he describes the situation in Old Town Alexandria, VA where he and his wife lived until they had children and moved to rural Virginia. In 2008, a children's clothing store closed because of sluggish sales. By 2012, "the average family in Old Town consist[ed] of a mother, a father, and 0. 57 children," which means that "the average Old Town married couple has a bit more than half a child!" More broadly, "the fertility rate for white, college-educated women (we'll use them because they serve as a fair proxy for our middle class), is only 1.6," almost as low as the fertility rate in China and far below the replacement level of 2.1.

Accompanying the decline in fertility is the proliferation of pet shops and facilities to care for pets. In Old Town, this growth was spectacular, but it is widespread throughout the country. In Old Town, when people went on holiday, they could leave their dog at "Dog Town," where each dog had a "separate house complete with air conditioning."

Opponents will say there's no need to worry about America's population, pointing out that in 2010, 50.5 million Americans were of Hispanic descent and that the fertility rate for Hispanic women was 2.3 in 2012. Moreover, between 2000 and 2009, the total population of the U.S. increased by 27.5 million people - more than half of which were Hispanic. In addition, the growing population of Americans of Asian descent also had healthy fertility rates. But Last shows that this is not likely to continue. The fertility of Hispanic women in the U.S. quickly trends downward toward America's national average. Furthermore, the fertility rates of the Latin American nations from which these immigrants come, though higher than rates in the U.S., are falling even more sharply.

The decline of American fertility "is the result of a complex constellation of factors, operating independently, with both foreseeable and unintended consequences. From big things - like the decline in church attendance and the increase of women in the workplace - to little things - like a law mandating car seats in Tennessee or the reform of divorce laws in California - our modern world has evolved in such a way as to subtly discourage childbearing." Last also notes the impact of the birth control pill, legalized abortion and the delay in marriage and child-bearing.

How to Make Babies, Wanted and Desired

Having described the many roadblocks to having children, Last makes several proposals to remove them, including:

1. Reform Social Security. The present system distorts the "market value" of children and forces fertility rates down. Last describes several thoughtful ways to reform the system so that it recognizes the value of children for parents. These different schemes share the same goals: (1) "Let parents keep more of their money" now paid in taxes; and (2) "Reduce the fundamental distortion that Social Security now creates by giving everyone welfare state payouts, regardless of whether or not they bore the cost of creating the relatively few workers who now fund them. These reforms do not hand out money to parents; they simply lessen the economic disconnect created by the government in the first place."

2. Rethink College. Higher education is a major roadblock. It often delays marriage and results in enormous debts. Since 1960 "the real cost of college has increased more than 1000 percent. Meanwhile the 'value' of a college degree has increased even in jobs where a college degree is not required and has no bearing at all on work-related knowledge. And all of this has happened as the objective quality of the average college degree has, by most standards, declined."

Last proposes three measures to address the shortcomings of the current system:

a. Eliminating the need for college. In many instances, a college degree has little bearing on a person's qualification for employment. Employers require degrees in part because the 1971 Supreme Court decision Griggs v. Duke Power held that employers could not rely on IQ-type tests if minorities performed poorly on them, and Blacks and Hispanics show a persistent underperformance on such tests. "But colleges are allowed to use such considerations. The colleges get rich, students and their parents go into hock…If Griggs were rolled back, it would upend the college system at a stroke."

b. Encouraging the college system to become more responsive to market forces. One way to reduce exorbitant tuition and be more responsive to the market would be to create a no-frills, federal degree-granting body that would let students "leapfrog the four-year system" by getting certificates when they met standards for such courses as English, the sciences, mathematics etc. After they gained sufficient certificates, students could receive a national Bachelor's Degree Equivalency without going to college. Government agencies would accept the Equivalency, and grad schools receiving any federal funds would be required to accept it.

c. Government stipulation that public universities become family-friendly. One cannot, and should not, "try to force college students to marry and have children, but for some students starting a family while they're in college is ideal." Last highlights Brigham Young University in Provo, UT, the "flagship school of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. BYU provides not only dormitory-style housing but family housing just off campus, and there is no reason why state schools should not provide such housing for the relatively few undergraduate married couples who desire such an arrangement."

3. Eliminate the "Dirt Gap." Most Americas live in large cities where real estate and associated costs are disproportionately much higher than in rural areas, and many must seek housing in the suburbs where real estate and a home are more reasonable; but commuting to jobs in the central cities is expensive and time consuming. The answer, Last argues, is not more public transportation for married couples both of whom work and must get children to school, leave their car at the rail station, retrieve car when they return etc. Building more roads is the way to go, and Last points out that Dallas has twice as much road pavement as Los Angeles and a higher fertility rate.

An important way to overcome the Dirt Gap is telecommuting. Currently, over 40 % of American workers telecommute for a good part of their work week. By increasing both the number or telecommuters and the number of hours they are able to telecommute, the Dirt Gap could be significantly reduced.


Last's book counters forcefully the widespread secularist view that the greatest threat to the survival of Americans and, indeed, the planet, is people. Those holding this view still embrace the philosophy popularized by Paul Ehrlich's 1968 book The Population Bomb. The idea that overpopulation is the greatest threat to the planet's survival has led governments throughout the world to take steps to curb population growth, punishing couples who choose to have more than the replacement number of babies. Last presents compelling evidence to show that under-population is the real threat to our survival.