Interview: Jonathan Last on America's Looming Demographic Crisis (with Transcript)
MR. DRISCOLL: Today though, in addition to our flat-lined economy, there are societal pressures to not have kids. Can you talk a bit about those?
MR. LAST: Yeah. You know, and this is one of those interesting things that I found. We hear a lot about this, right, about non-traditional families and how people's mores are changing and the patriarchal structures no longer hold sway over us. You've heard this before, I'm sure.
But the data shows some very interesting things. You know, so marriage is generally on the decline in America. But ninety percent of Americans get married at some point. That's a lot. I mean, it's low, historically, for our nation, but it's still nine of out ten. Now, whether or not these marriages last, I don't think a lot of people get married hoping they're going to get divorced. You know, it suggests that they would like to be married.
And then you look at what's called ideal fertility. Demographers measure this. They talk -- you know, you ask people at various points in their life what they think the ideal number of children to have is. And this is a remarkably interesting finding and it surprised the heck out of me. The first thing that's surprising about it is that men and women have very similar ideal numbers. I would not have expected that. I suspected one sex would be higher or lower than the other. They're not.
The other thing is that people's idea of the ideal changes over time. When you're twenty you have a lower ideal number than you do when you're thirty-five. And so people shift that number a little bit older -- a little bit higher as they get older.
But the final thing that was surprising is that our ideal is 2.5, and it has been 2.5 for forty years. It's been remarkably stable. People still want families. The real thing that's happening is, you know, with our fertility rate of 1.9, we're just not achieving them.
And I think that's actually sort of hopeful, because it suggests that, you know, there's this divide here between what people would like to do and what they feel they can do and, you know, and what they eventually achieve. And if you can find a way to bridge that divide and sort of help people achieve the families they want, then, like, you know, there's room to be hopeful.
My book does not -- does not in any way argue for people who don't want children to have children. I have three kids. I am totally unromantic and unsentimental about it. And I really -- I say to people who don't want kids, god bless you. Raise a glass and pour one for me tonight.
But on the other hand, those people, you know, not to deny the validity of their experiences, but they are not the median experience in America. People still do want kids.
MR. DRISCOLL: Yeah, and one of the things that's fascinating about your book is that it's got some surprisingly tough love for those parents who choose to have kids.
MR. LAST: Yeah, well, you know. I well -- I'm sort of an unsentimental guy, period. But yeah, I mean, there's no papering over it. And you know, as a parent, I would say, when I'm in line at the grocery store and somebody comes up to me as my three kids are crying and says, oh, treasure these moments, they go by so fast; I think to myself, really? This is sterling. So nothing, nothing bothers me more than sentimentality about parenthood and children.
And look, there are lots of parents who really do love -- really, really do love parenthood and who have a wonderful experience with their children. And I -- that's great. I applaud them. But again, my book, is -- it's very data-driven. I always go to the data.
And there's a lot of research on what we'll call by shorthand, parental happiness. And it suggests that if you have two people who are similar in every demographic marker: the same religion, the same race, same income, they live in the same place, the only difference between them is that one of them is a parent is not a parent, the nonparent is going to be about six percentage points happier than the parent. You lose about six percentage points of happiness when you have a kid. And then you lose another two points for each additional kid.
So I guess the good news is, there's an economy of scale. But the bad news is that you're still less happy when you have kids. And you know, I think that's just sort of important to acknowledge, that people aren't crazy. They're not entirely irrational if they, you know, back away from having kids.
MR. DRISCOLL: In America Alone, Mark Steyn warned that the Muslim world was going to win the demographic war against the West. But as you write in What to Expect When No One's Expecting, several Middle Eastern nations are having demographic crises of their own.
MR. LAST: You know, Mark's book is great. God, I loved that book when I read it. And I still love it today. And he's not wrong. I mean, so Mark's point was that it's a game of last-man-standing. And there's a lot of truth to that. And he's right in this respect, that the Muslim countries tend to be tailing everybody else in their fertility decline, but they're declining too.
I think there's sort of -- you know, the common perception that well, you know, over in Iran, they're just breeding like crazy, and they're not. Actually Iran has a lower fertility rate than we do, right now. And when you look at the slopes of those curves, you look at the dx/dt, many of the Muslim countries, although they began their fertility decrease at much later dates, their rate of fertility decreases are much faster than we're experiencing in the West.
Now there are some places which are exceptions. Nigeria, the Muslim population in Nigeria has shown no decrease in overall fertility. And in the West Bank, actually, in the Palestinian territories, their fertility rates have remained incredibly high without showing any signs of decreasing.
But in general, I mean, the Muslim world is going to suffer from the same consequences we are. The big difference, though, is that many of those countries are not rich. And it is one thing to get old and decline in terms of your population when you are a wealthy First World country. It is quite another to do so when you are not.