LAST: Oh yes. If current projections hold, by 2050 the population of Americans over the age of 65 will be greater than the population under the age of 14. We will be Florida. And Florida might look like Japan, where last year people bought more adult diapers than they did diapers for babies.
LOPEZ: Why shouldn’t we trust anyone over 65?
LAST: Because [looks over both shoulders] they’re Baby Boomers.
I kid. We’re in a serious enough demographic bind that we’re all going to have to work together to figure out a way to make this thing work. The thing is, when your fertility rate is sub-replacement, you enter a zero-sum game where either older folks aren’t going to get the benefits they were promised or young workers are going to face much steeper tax rates. How the politics of this issue resolves over the next 20 years will be one of the most interesting stories around. Will older Americans relinquish some of their claims? Will younger workers volunteer to pay more? Will there be some grand bargain? The truth is, no one knows how it will end. We just know that something has to give.
LOPEZ: Why do you point to Poland?
LAST: No real reason. Poland is just one of the interesting demographic case studies from Eastern Europe. You could just as easily look at the Czech Republic or Hungary.
But I like Poland because I’m a good Catholic boy and it gave us John Paul the Great.
LOPEZ: What’s the actual good news from Georgia?
LAST: Georgia is the only known example of a country recovering from lowest-low fertility to near the replacement rate. And the way they did it will shock you. When you read the book.
Short version: The patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox church, Ilia II, stepped in and volunteered to baptize all third-born children. The Georgians are really into their church. So they started having more babies. It’s pretty neat.
LOPEZ: Whose fertility do you worry about the most?
LAST: The people who want babies. For all the fashionable talk about how family life has gone out of style and how people don’t want kids anymore, the research is pretty clear: When demographers calculate America’s “ideal fertility rate” — that is, the number of children people say they’d like in a perfect world — that figure has been a pretty constant 2.5 for almost two generations.
Put that 2.5 ideal rate next to our 1.9 actual rate, and what you see is that while many people may not want children — which is fine! we celebrate your choice! — that is not the median American experience.
So what we have here is a persistent, generations-long gap between ideal and achieved fertility. This suggests to me that the solution isn’t arguing or trying to bribe people who don’t want kids — leave those nice folks alone! No, the solution is finding ways to help the people who do want kids achieve the families they desire.
LOPEZ: Why does your outline of historic demographic transitions matter?
LAST: Knowledge is its own reward. Plus, nothing makes you King of the Party like being able to dazzle your friends with a Brief Population History of the World.