Jonathan Last could live with barefoot-and-pregnant

I was replaced on the guest list for KCRW’s To the Point discussion about Jonathan Last’s book, What To Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster. But before I was cut I did some preparation — read some of the book and made some notes.

Last is a writer for the Weekly Standard (in which capacity he recently suggested that, rather than try to reach out to single people, the GOP should instead work on convincing more people to get married), who also wrote for First Things, a Christian conservative website. His essay in the Wall Street Journal sparked my initial post, but the book is more extreme than that column was.

Last doesn’t add substantively to the general concern that below-replacement fertility causes problems, except to exaggerate it cartoonishly for the U.S. (“The root cause of most of our problems is our declining fertility rate”). The historical perspective is so weak here I feel the need to remind him that caring for aging Baby Boomers is a problem not of low fertility but high fertility. Were it not for the high fertility of the Baby Boomers’ parents, we would have had gradually declining long-run fertility levels and a working-age population much more up for the task of funding Medicare and Social Security.

In the book he relies heavily on Phillip Longman, the author of “The Empty Cradle,” whom I’ve written about before, but also summons (without mentioning it) Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, which bemoans the divergent family structures of middle- and working-class White America and chastises the rich for being too self-absorbed and pleasure-driven to keep up their responsibilities as moral compasses. Thus, he tuts:

The bearing and raising of children has largely become the province of the lower classes.

Last and Longman are helping the American patriarchal right get its desire for “traditional” family structures in sync with corporate America’s amoral economic growth obsession, and it turns out boosting fertility is a message they can all get behind (plus it pleases both evangelical Protestant and conservative Catholic culture warriors).

My adaptation of the book cover art.


Of course, fertility rates in the U.S. fell after the Baby Boom as women’s employment rates and educational  attainment increased. And those women with better opportunities have fewer children, on average. (However, this relationship is not universal or inevitable — see developments in Norway, for example.) But Last doesn’t want to create the impression that his wish for higher fertility implies opposition to women’s progress.

I’d also like to offer a preemptive defense against readers who may take this book to be a criticism of the modern American woman. Nothing could be further from my intent. … The more educated a woman is, on average, the fewer children she will have. To observe this is not to argue that women should be barefoot, pregnant, and waiting at home for their husbands every night with a cocktail and a smile.

But that he suggests we have more children — without taking steps to reconcile our endemic work-family conflicts and persistent gender imbalances (he’s not advocating universal childcare or healthcare, better welfare, paid family leave or a shorter workweek) — means that even if he’s not arguing for a return to barefoot-and-pregnant status, he’s at least willing to live with it.


His passing nod to Esther Boserup was interesting to me. Writing in the 1960s and 1970s (which Last carelessly calls “a century ago,” after apparently skimming her Wikipedia entry), Boserup argued that population pressure spurred agricultural innovation. That is, farmers figured out how to rotate land more efficiently, for example, when there was more demand for farmland (and food). I don’t know how well this theory is holding up in the historical scholarship (I don’t think it explains European divergence from China, for example) but it is interesting — and we’ve now spent as much time thinking about it as Last did).

From this Last declares that the reverse is also true, that postindustrial societies suffer a lack of innovation when populations shrink. That is a question Boserup was unlikely to have troubled herself with (but let me know if I’m missing something she wrote on it). However, I could conjure the opposite hypothesis – that a rapidly shrinking population would spur a different kind of innovation in postindustrial society. For example, we may face pressure for old people to be more productive, as they delay retirement; and to invest more wisely (and heavily) in the smaller cohorts of children’s education and skill development.


Last goes out of his way to say (perhaps too much) that he’s not against immigration, without which American fertility rates would be much lower.  He is just against the immigration of people who don’t assimilate into America’s Christian majority. He writes:

A reasonably liberal program of immigration is necessary for the longterm health of our country. Yet at the same time, this liberal approach to immigration should be coupled with a staunchly traditionalist view of integration. America has been lucky in the way it has assimilated most of its immigrants. Europe—and France in particular—has not. “Europe” as we have known it for 15 centuries is almost certain to fade away in the next 50 years, replaced by a semi-hostile Islamic ummah. All that will remain of what we traditionally know as “Europe” is the name [It’s not clear why the hostile Islamic majority of 2063 would retain the name “Europe” -pnc]. This change was not inevitable; it is the result of a policy choice made by adherents of a truly radical faith: multiculturalism. … Tolerance need not be surrender and a certain amount of cultural chauvinism is necessary for societal coherence.” (p. 169)

“Racism” is the wrong term for this attitude. I guess his term “cultural chauvinism” is accurate because it assumes a cultural superiority. But that doesn’t quite capture the animus. Anyway: If the problem is falling fertility, why worry about the culture that the fertile immigrants bring? It’s just possible that Last’s problem is not just with fertility.


Like Longman, Last is sad about the demise of religion in the “public square,” which reduces fertility. In this he reveals his apocalyptic Christian moorings:

Of all of the evolutions in twentieth-century America, the most consequential might be the exodus of religion from the public square.

Really. More consequential than civil rights, women’s rights, science, public health, militarism and Wall Street? And isn’t exodus a strong word for what’s happened? There’s only one reason to believe a moderate decline in religiosity is more important than anything else: Because God said so. Anyway, besides ending the War on Christmas, Last also wants us to give credit for births where it is due (to God).

America is the most demographically healthy industrialized nation; it is also the most religiously devout. This is not a coincidence. … There is no reason for wishing the United States to be a theocracy. That said, it is important we preserve the role of religion in our public square, resisting those critics who see theocracy lurking behind every corner. Our government should be welcoming of, not hostile to, believers—if for no other reason than they’re the ones who create most of the future taxpayers. After all, there are many perfectly good reasons to have a baby. (Curiosity, vanity, and naïveté all come to mind.) But 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 to.

I guess that means atheists don’t have a good reason to have more than one child. (Are there multiple-child atheists out there to respond to this?) Anyway, it’s usually not a good sign when an author follows “There is no reason for wishing the United States to be a theocracy,” with, “That said…”


We can see the depth of Last’s commitment to the long term in his discussion of transportation. One reason New Englanders and other liberals don’t have enough children, he believes, is because land is too expensive where they live. So they have small houses and long commutes, which aren’t conducive to child-rearing.

The answer is not more public transportation. Light rail might work for the child-free. (Or it might not; there is a stark divide in the literature on mass transit.) But parents trying to balance work and children need the flexibility automobiles provide; they cannot easily drop a child at a babysitter or school, then take a train to work, then train home, and then fetch the child. (If you don’t believe me, you try it.) The solution is building more roads.

That’s our destiny? A more efficient suburban sprawl to nurture our larger families? Doesn’t he care about climate change? Maybe, maybe not. He writes in a footnote:

The only environmentalist concern that population [growth] might legitimately affect is climate change, a subject so fraught with theological division that I’ll leave it be.

What courage, refusing to genuflect the climate-change authorities like that. And yet what cowardice to refuse to take a position in the face of “theological division.” That’s some combination.

14 thoughts on “Jonathan Last could live with barefoot-and-pregnant

  1. Ok, this is just too much. So, you mean they cut out YOU the only legitimate scholar with any expertise on anything addressed in this ideologues fulminations? This should be yet another moment of clarity about the production of ideas, and how the far-right now controls and dominates discourse in contrary to expert wisdom in a wide variety of areas. The Regnerus’ and Wilcox’s and the Last’s get big megaphones, while the humble actual scholar has his mike turned off…No real critique by any legitimate expert will be heard….


  2. More consequential than civil rights, women’s rights, science, public health, militarism and Wall Street? And isn’t exodus a strong word for what’s happened?

    Religious people were deeply involved both in the anti-slavery crusade and the civil rights movement. He was Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, after all. Also, Christian missionaries often used western public health advances as “wedges” to demonstrate how Christianity was superior to native religions and culture.

    I’d also assert that anti-church Me Generation attitudes which sprang from the counter-culture revolution were the direct progenitor of all of the financial destruction from the S&L crisis to “Greed is good”, Enron, 2008, etc.

    So yes, an argument can be made that the forced exodus of religion from the public square was a seed cause of many current social ills.

    Are there multiple-child atheists out there to respond to this?

    How about, “Have children at replacement levels because replenishing the population is our prime duty as a species.”

    without taking steps to reconcile our endemic work-family conflicts and persistent gender imbalances

    If my college-educated sister can have 4 kids and also hold a decent job, then all the other college-educated women (physically capable of bearing) should be able to handle two.

    “cultural chauvinism” is accurate because it assumes a cultural superiority.

    We are culturally superior. Well, 20 years ago we were. Too many Humanities eggheads whine and bitch about our imperfections and use their power to mold young people into their west-hating dogma.

    Doesn’t he care about climate change?

    Maybe geographically disbursed populations would actually be a better idea.


  3. “If my college-educated sister can have 4 kids and also hold a decent job, then all the other college-educated women (physically capable of bearing) should be able to handle two.”

    Yeah, because if 1 person can lift 500 pounds, the everybody else should be able to lift 250. Having children isn’t uniform in its difficulty to everyone, and not all ‘decent jobs’ are created equal.

    Your comment of all the other women can handle two’ reeks of a sort of dehumanization of women as breeding stock that, if it can ‘handle’ (physically) childbirth, ought to get paired with the nearest stud, regardless of whether or not this works for them or their partners. You’re seriously fine telling all the other college educated women that since You, Mr Man think they can and should, they *ought* to get pregnant and have kids. Nice to know you feel entitled to control my fertility.

    I think a mistake everybody makes about a declining population is the assumption that it’s actually an issue. Given that per-worker productivity can increase quite drastically, I see no reason why a declining population is necessarily a problem.


    1. Nice to know you feel entitled to control my fertility.

      Tell me exactly how “should be able to” equates to “I enforce my will upon you.”


      1. Perhaps I misread you, but as a woman with a lot of education who has no kids, people editorializing on this choice come across as telling me what to do. If I said “people who have more than two kids should be able to get out and get sterilized, after all, my neighbor did this” I would assume that people would interpret this as an “ought to” statement.

        However, lots of college educated women do have 2 kids. It isn’t like all college educated women are child-free. As it seems to me, at least among educated people, that people who want kids have them, and people who don’t want kids don’t have them.

        The other problem is if your sister can handle four kids, there’s no reason to assume that all educated women with ‘decent jobs’ are going to be equally capable of doing so. I’m disabled, and I currently am working. I would never say “Well, I have these disabilities, and I work, therefore, anybody with the same type of disabilities should have no trouble holding down a job.” I could be a statistical anomaly, my job might be atypical in some way, perhaps my condition isn’t as serious as it is for other people.

        On economics and Christianity though, there may have been a time when greed was regarded as a sin, but in these days with the prosperity gospel, it seems like Christianity has found a way to resolve the concurrent worship of god and mammon.


        1. But they have told you not to have kids. Had you not had education, you’d much more likely would have already had a couple at least given you are not infertile. This way you have been indoctrinated and will not admit to it. Only external forces can attain this (see denazification).


      2. people editorializing

        Yes, I am editorializing that smart, capable women should breed at a minimum of replacement level.

        It isn’t like all college educated women are child-free.

        Or one. I’ve seen it way too often.

        people who want kids have them, and people who don’t want kids don’t have them.

        Because this is a free society. Which is why, unlike the fascists and their nanny state comrades, I don’t seek to make my thoughts government policy.

        I’m disabled

        Blind? Because I originally wrote (physically capable of bearing). So, maybe you’re not. Shit happens.

        “Well, I have these disabilities, and I work, therefore, anybody with the same type of disabilities should have no trouble holding down a job.”

        I’m disabled too, and have a job. That doesn’t mean I can hold any job. But I accept that, and don’t go whining to the Nanny that the construction company should make all sorts of modifications so that I can work a jackhammer. A man’s GOT to know his limitations.


  4. To answer the question you raised about what Last wrote about atheists’ not having multiple children: My parents are not religious; my sibling and I were raised in a non-religious environment (had access to whatever info on religions we wanted and studied them academically; we are both adult atheists now and never participated in religious activities more than weddings, family events with religious relatives, and cultural holidays). My parents had two kids because they wanted one child to “replace” each of them, thus not contributing to overpopulation. Other nonreligious friends had/want to have two kids so their first child can have a sibling (playmate, friend, support), especially those who grew up with a sibling.


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