This book will be on my top ten list at the end of the year. It’s witty. It’s readable. It’s learned. And it’s important.

In What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster, Jonathan Last details the falling birthrate in America (and in the world) and explains why Very Bad Things inevitably follow population decline. Contrary to rumor, Last observes, overpopulation is not the black cloud on the horizon. In 1979, the world’s fertility rate was 6.0; today it’s 2.52 (p. 8). America’s fertility rate is just about the highest in the Western world, but at 1.93 it’s still well below that replacement rate of 2.1. And the only reason our rate is relatively high is because Hispanic women are doing most of the heavy lifting with a fertility rate of 2.35—a rate that is falling fast.

The fertility has fallen for a variety of reasons. The simplest explanation is that from big things like decline in church attendance and the increase of women in the workforce, to little things like mandatory car seats, our modern world discourages childbearing (16). Children are more expensive and less practically useful than they use to be. As Last observes, “pets have become fuzzy, low-maintenance replacements for children” (3). It’s no surprise that today only 3 percent of the world’s population lives in a country whose fertility rate is not declining (92). Countries like Italy, Japan, and Russia—whose populations are rapidly contracting—are in big trouble. America is in better shape, but heading in the same direction.

And This Matters Because…

So what’s so bad about falling fertility rates and decreasing populations? Doesn’t it mean more space, more food, and more time for everybody? Not exactly. When a society’s age structure gets older, entrepreneurship and inventiveness decrease, so does the supply of everything except for healthcare (28). Very practically, entitlement programs will consume ever-larger portions of the federal budget with fewer young workers to pay into the Ponzi scheme (27). With plenty of numbers and examples, Last makes his case that a declining population—which is what you eventually get with falling fertility rates—is one of the worst signs of national health. As Last puts it, quoting Mark Steyn, “there is no precedent in human history for economic growth on declining human capital” (36).

I won’t take the time to summarize every chapter, though everyone merits discussion. From start to finish I found myself underlining remarkable statistics and fascinating observations. For example:

  • It used to be that the elites had more children, but now they noticeably have fewer children than people on the lower end of the social spectrum. In the culture’s eyes, children have gone from being a marker of success to an indicator of failure (72).
  • The percentage of women in America who have five or more children is 1.8 percent (79).
  • If current fertility rates remain constant in Europe, the population of the continent will shrink from 738 million to 482 million by the end of century (97).
  • In 1950, the median age in America was 30. In 2000, it was 35. By 2050 it will be 40, the median age in Florida today (100).
  • Fertility rates, especially among whites, is one of the best predictors of whether states vote Republican or Democratic.
  • Many Americans fear the rise of an expansionist China, but according to Last, with the legacy of China’s One Child Policy and a male-to-female ration of 123-100, China’s future is one of being a declining superpower with a rapidly contracting economic base and an unstable political structure (136).

More than once, Last tries to find a silver-lining in our cloudy demographic future. But his moments of hopefulness are short-lived. There are simply no examples of widespread success in reversing the trend of falling fertility. The best illustration Last can muster is how the birth rate in Georgia (the country) increased after Patriarch Ilia II promised to personally baptize any child born to parents who already had two or more children (159). Hardly a recipe for success in the United States.

Blessed to Be a Blessing (and Have Babies)

And yet, the Georgian illustration hits on a powerful truth: religious people have more children than the non-religious. Our ethics professor at seminary was well known for making the case in his class that in ordinary circumstances (allowing for illness, danger, extremely unique ministry callings, etc.), Christian couples, in keeping with the creation mandate, should try to have three or more children. He wasn’t calling for maximum fertility (he had five children). He wasn’t shaming those who had already made other choices. But he was offering a strong exhortation. A well placed one in my opinion.

The hope for a demographic reversal in America is in the church. More than that, one of the best strategies for cultural influence and societal change is for Christians to keep having babies. “Militant fecundity” is the phrase that comes to mind. As Last notes in his conclusion, quoting two well known demographers, “Conservative religious families are larger than theologically liberal families. Conservatives also are better at retaining their children within the fold than liberals” (173). These demographers go so far as to fear a short-run rise in secularism (in the present), giving way to a growing fundamentalism (in the future). I’m not convinced that’s the next chapter in America’s story, but it seems plausible that the only reasonable chance we have of turning around our falling fertility is an increase in religious commitment.

If there is hope for avoiding the Very Bad Things the book outlines it will be found in the children of religious families. Secular Americans have a fertility rate of just 1.66, compared with a rate of 2.3 and 2.2 for observant Catholics and Protestants (172). Surveys show that 21 percent of non-religious Americans want to have three or more children. This number goes up to 36 percent for Protestants and 34 percent for Catholics. And when you look at those who attend church every week, 41 percent say three or more children is ideal (86). In the not too distant future, the only couples replacing themselves in America will be religious couples. As Last puts it, although there are many good reasons to have a baby, at the end of the day, “there’s only one good reason to go through the trouble a second time: Because you believe, in some sense, that God wants you too” (170). The basic reason countries stop having children is because they’ve come to see offspring as a liability rather than a source of hope (175). As Christians, we know better.

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64 thoughts on “What to Expect When No One’s Expecting”

  1. Matthew Abate says:

    @JK — You raise a very good point about the rising infertility rate in the US. I’ve seen a few documentaries (Genetic Roulette for example), which highlight the infertility problem among rats and other complications. I haven’t the read the book reviewed in this article, but I’d love to see someone tackle the issue of GMO and infertility.

  2. Kamilla says:

    Mr. Abate,

    While there is little doubt environmental pollutants are a contributing factor, especially the abundance of artificial oestrogens, I am sure the greater problem is de,ayed childbearing.

    As someone said to me Friday evening, “college debt may be the best birth control ever devised”.

  3. David Palmer says:

    For a secular point of view I recommend Eric Kaufmann’s, “Shall the religious inherit the earth?”. His short answer is “Yes”.

  4. Lori says:

    @Kamilla, that is truth about student loan debt. My husband and I didn’t take that advice–we’ve got three kids and Jesus will return before our college and grad school loans are paid off–but the student loan debt and just generally poor financial situation that many are trapped in are definitely dissuading people from having kids.

    We’re not only seeing population being skewed toward the over-40 age group, which is the issue, not absolute population numbers. The reason the population is still growing is that people are living longer. That’s not, in and of itself, a bad thing at all. But it does seem unsustainable for everybody to choose to prolong their life as much as possible without any thought to how that should impact decisions about childbearing. We’re also seeing, as a new study showed, wealth heavily skewed toward people over 40. People in their 30s have seen, in the last few decades, over a 20% drop in wealth while people who are older have seen increases as high as 150%. That’s due not only to crippling student loan debt (in the 1970s, working 15 hours per week at a minimum-wage job would pay for one’s college education at an average-priced state school. My students today, at the average-priced state school where I teach, would barely make enough for just their books in a semester of part-time minimum-wage work.) but also to stagnating and falling wages, much more limited employment opportunities, and falling home values.

    If we are concerned about fertility, I don’t see any way around advocating for a genuine family wage. One person working hard at a full-time job should make enough to support a family in modest comfort. I was just watching a piece on the news about a steel mill that shut down; those factory workers, in the 1950s and 1960s, were able to support their families and send their kids to college on what they made. Today, my husband has a doctorate and does research at a university, and we qualify for WIC and reduced lunch. A man (or woman, but in many families both partners would prefer for it to be the man) should be able to support a family with a full-time job, and yet we’ve moved very far away from that.

  5. Kevin, you may be wasting your words about children and the future of the church so long as evangelicals use artificial contraception without knowledge of the pre-1930 Lambeth Conference (Resolution 15) Protestant unity theological opposing the prevent of pregnancy within the context of marital sexual union. This is a great book recommendation!!!

  6. sara gering says:

    Your claim that falling church attendance is [even partially] responsible for declining fertility is laughable.

  7. Leslie McCalister says:

    If we’re talking about economics, there are pros and cons to large families. But you’ve got to wonder why birth rates so consistently fall as income increases, and ask yourself if people tend to be better off in countries with low birth rates (German, Bulgaria, modern US) or high birth rates (Niger, Mali, Uganda, industrial age US). As for your religious argument, well, I’m going to take the Apostle Paul at his word and not fret too much over being in med school instead of homeschooling.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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