“America’s fertility decline was not caused by a grand conspiracy to eviscerate the family,” he explains. “Rather, it’s been the result of a thousand evolutions in modern life. Many of these changes (the decline in infant mortality; the liberation of women into the workplace) have been enormously beneficial to us as a society. Some of them (the epidemics of divorce and cohabitation) have not. But even the changes we think of as beneficial have, as ancillary effects, created roadblocks to family formation. They delayed marriage and childbearing, or increased the cost of children, or decreased the return on that investment.” Last talks about his demographic warning in an interview with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Clever title, but what business is it of any of us who’s expecting and who’s not? It’s a matter of choice, and who wants to bring a child into the world to pay our bills anyway?
JONATHAN V. LAST: That’s totally true. And I celebrate choice. Really — I do. I’ve got three kids and one of the great blessings of parenthood is that it cures you of any sentimentality about children. So anyone out there who doesn’t have kids, or doesn’t want them, I say, Godspeed. Remember me fondly the next time you’re taking a quick weekend getaway to London or going to the movies on a weeknight.
I say this pretty explicitly in What to Expect: Please don’t construe any part of the book as me telling you to have kids.
All of that said, children are — as high-minded economist types will note — both public and private goods. And society can’t function very well, or for very long, without a certain number of them being born. So whatever people decide to do at the individual level, there are macro effects to consider. I would just note that it’s a little weird that certain types of people are happy to consider the macro effects of individual behavior when it comes to smoking, or drinking soda — but say that we’re not allowed to notice these things when it comes to kids. I mean, it’s only the entire future of Western civilization we’re talking about.
LOPEZ: How is it that “fertility is shaping nearly everything in our national conversation”?
LAST: My hero Phil Longman once wrote that demography is like the tectonic plates shifting underneath the earth’s crust, determining the scope of the possible. I don’t think I can really improve on that metaphor. But just as a quick sample list, it’s just true that you cannot fully understand Medicare, Social Security, immigration, defense spending, the foreign challenges of Iran and China, the housing bubble, or the polarization of American politics without taking account of demographics.
LOPEZ: What do you have against yoga studios and pet boutiques?
LAST: I’m not against yoga studios or pet boutiques. In fact, without yoga studios, we would not have come up with one of the great inventions of the last century: yoga pants.
I just find the evolution of these kinds of lifestyle markers interesting. If you took a dog-lover from 1965 America and dropped him into the modern pet-fancy culture — with doggie car insurance and organic pet-food bakeries and kennels that built tiny houses with air conditioning and TVs for the pooches — he would probably think the world had gone insane.
By historical standards, our current fascination with pets is unusual. And hence interesting.