Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Book Review: What To Expect When No One Is Expecting

Some time ago I read an interview with author Jonathan Last where he was talking about his latest book, a very troubling look at declining rates of child bearing, What To Expect When No One's Expecting. After reading the interview I was eager to check this book out and I was not disappointed.

Last's premise is a simple one but it runs contrary to virtually every doom and gloom Malthusian theory out there, theories telling us that the world is suffering from overpopulation. Last argues that just the opposite is true, that plummeting birth rates not just in the West but in the developing world as well spell serious trouble for our future as a species.

The math is pretty simple. People have a 100% mortality rate. Without exception. So when a couple dies and leaves behind less than two children (plus childless singles), the population shrinks. We see this right now in Europe and Last cites some startling statistics that show that some of the largest nations in Europe like Germany are headed for dramatically reduced populations in the next 50 years. This is especially problematic in cultures where the care of the elderly has been subcontracted to the state, a state that relies on a steady supply of young workers to support the older workers.

Another interesting observation Last makes is that at one time a large family was seen as a sign of success while now it is largely becoming the inverse where the more education and the higher your income, the correspondingly fewer children you tend to have. There are a lot of implications to that, some that can be dangerous if taken the wrong way (like the worldview of Planned "Parenthood" patron saint Margaret Sanger)

This book is not merely a veiled racial attack on minorities and immigrants because as Last point out they too are adopting at least this aspect of American life, having rapidly diminishing family sizes just like their Caucasian counterparts. Nor is it intended as a wagging finger in the face of families that struggle financially and see children as an expense. That mindset is deeply cultural and ingrained in our society. This book is simply looking at the numbers and seeing that our future is being lived out in Europe right before our eyes demographically, just as it is religiously and in many other ways.

On top of it all our economic system is broken and that has not helped. We are one of the few single income families I know and it is not an easy way to go. Our cultural norm has created an untenable situation where more and more families are two income and have fewer and fewer children which leads to an upside down demographic pyramid where more elderly people needing care are at the top being supported by fewer and fewer replacement workers.

While most of the information Last provided was quite useful and presented in an informative and often humorous fashion (given the gravity of the topic), his solutions presented at the seemed like more of an afterthought, mere tinkering, rather than substantive policies. Sure we need to have more flexible work arrangements and modify Social Security but what is really needed is a renewal of the social contract that has family at the center rather than government. Families need to be more than relative strangers who inhabit the same residence and become the generation spanning units that have held our social network together for centuries. The social breakdown of the family, the rise of single parent by choice households and the dual income couple, the seemingly endless increases in college costs and the simultaneous relatively diminished value of a four year degree, on and on, have led to a shattered social network and a soon to be bankrupted government. Last has done a service by pointing out the numbers and giving us some of the background that has led to this point but where we really need to focus is on the solutions and those will require more than mere tinkering around the margins. This is a book we need to be reading as a nation and taking a long, hard look at the reality being played out i Europe right now. We cannot serve as a nation and culture, and indeed we cannot survive as a species, if we stop having children but that is the very road we have gone pretty down already.


dle said...

There have been two major work/society changes that have changed everything.

With the change from agrarian to industrial work, we split up the family.

With the change from industrial to knowledge work, we set men and women against each other.

By making it possible for men and women to compete for the same jobs (then forcing them to do so), we created winners and losers. Today, men are increasingly losing.

Some people want to go back to the 1950s, but those days with dad working downtown and mom in the suburbs at home had its own set of problems we now gloss over.

At one point in human history, the family stayed together and worked together for the good of the family side by side.

That model is the only one that was never broken, never needing reengineering. And yet we messed with it and called that messing "progress." Today, we are reaping the whirlwind.

Arthur Sido said...

Indeed and I am not so naive as to think that all of these consequences are unintended. I was actually working on another post that I just put up before I read your comment and it is eerie how similar some of the thoughts are. I wonder what it would look like if Christians banded together to support each other all week instead of at church, working together, sharing materially while still maintaining a zeal for truth and evangelism.

dle said...

Arthur: "I wonder what it would look like if Christians banded together to support each other all week instead of at church, working together, sharing materially while still maintaining a zeal for truth and evangelism."

I've written about this much, and whenever I do, it brings out the boobirds, who say such a thing is impossible because sin makes it that way.

Really? Impossible? It seems to me that none of us in this generation has truly tried an alternative, and yet we condemn something different.

If anything, I wish there were some way to go back to a European village concept, one where the majority of goods and services could be found within walking distance (or at least bicycle-riding distance) of everyone's homes. I think it is possible if we make commitments and honor them, rethinking how we live, consume products and services, and deal with our neighbors as contributors to our own well-being.

The Achilles heel of that idea is that we have abandoned most trades or modernized them to an extent that makes it harder for tradesmen like the cobbler or tailor to operate. Still, I don't think it is impossible, only difficult.

Arthur Sido said...

Dan we still see that to some extent in plan Anabaptist communities (like the Amish and Hutterites) where one guy is a harness maker because that is what his dad did and another fixes buggies or shoes horses or whatever. They all need to be in relatively close proximity to one another and they help each other out because they and their families have lived in close proximity for generations. The issue becomes how to cultivate these close communities without slipping into isolationism.

Of course the other salient point is that if we never try, if we never step out there and give it a shot, failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.