Jonathan Last, Race Suicide, and Demographic Collapse

Forget the debt ceiling. Forget the fiscal cliff, the sequestration cliff and the entitlement cliff. Those are all just symptoms. What America really faces is a demographic cliff: The root cause of most of our problems is our declining fertility rate.

Apparently my IUD is the cause of the fiscal cliff. Yay me.

Can I say how much I hate articles like this? This particular one, by author Jonathan Last (whose new book, What To Expect When No One’s Expecting, just came out), was published in the Wall Street Journal this past week. This is the paragraph that actually begins the article, immediately preceding the one above:

For more than three decades, Chinese women have been subjected to their country’s brutal one-child policy. Those who try to have more children have been subjected to fines and forced abortions. Their houses have been razed and their husbands fired from their jobs. As a result, Chinese women have a fertility rate of 1.54. Here in America, white, college-educated women—a good proxy for the middle class—have a fertility rate of 1.6. America has its very own one-child policy. And we have chosen it for ourselves.

This alone sets off alarm bells for me. First of all, Last honestly equates China’s forced one-child policy with American women choosing to have fewer children. Really? Really? I’m pretty sure we women would tell him differently. And second, it seems the birth rates of American women who aren’t white and college educated don’t matter in Last’s world. With this short introduction, let’s turn to race suicide, gender, and religion, because it’s all there.

Race Suicide?

Honestly? Last’s rhetoric sounds for all intents and purposes identical to concerns about declines in the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant birth rate over a century ago.

Oh hey. Here’s a quote from Last:

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

Last’s fixation on the class of the people having children reminds me once again of century-old concerns about race suicide. Let me give you an example.

Here is the Library of Congress’s summary of the image:

Concerning Race Suicide: “The Idle Stork” on the left has little to do as the upper class chooses not to make babies, whereas “The Strenuous Stork” is being worked to death by a population explosion among the lower class.

Makes Last’s works sound suddenly familiar, doesn’t it?

Barefoot and pregnant

Weirdly, even as he urges (middle and upper class white) women to have more children, Last brushes aside the suggestion that we should implement things like paid maternity leave, more flexible working hours, or quality subsidized daycare.

Liberals like to think that if we would just be more like France—offer state-run day care and other programs so women wouldn’t have to choose between working and motherhood—it would solve the problem. But the evidence suggests that neither path offers more than marginal gains. France, for example, hasn’t been able to stay at the replacement rate, even with all its day-care spending.

Making it so that women don’t have to choose between working and motherhood? Nah! I mean, that can’t have anything to do with the fact that so many middle and upper income women are choosing not to have fewer, if any, children, right?


If we want to continue leading the world, we simply must figure out a way to have more babies.

It’s not that we don’t know how to have more babies. It’s that we’re choosing not to. What Last wants us to do is choose to have more of them, but without any of those silly programs that make it so women don’t have to “choose between working and motherhood.” Yay, right?

I suddenly have the distinct feeling that Last is staring at my uterus, and that is making me, well, distinctly uncomfortable.

But as Philip Cohen explains, Last isn’t anti-woman! Banish the thought!

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.

Last may be willing to live with a return to barefoot-and-pregnant status, but I’m not. I’m really, really not.

Happiness is overrated!

So if he doesn’t think we should making raising children easier, less stressful, or less expensive, how does Last hope to convince (white middle and upper class) women to have more children? Let’s take a look, shall we?

The problem is that, while making babies is fun, raising them isn’t. A raft of research shows that if you take two people who are identical in every way except for childbearing status, the parent will be on average about six percentage points less likely to be “very happy” than the nonparent. (That’s just for one child. Knock off two more points for each additional bundle of joy.)

But then, parenting has probably never been a barrel of laughs. There have been lots of changes in American life over the last 40 years that have nudged our fertility rate downward. High on the list is the idea that “happiness” is the lodestar of a life well-lived. If we’re going to reverse this decline, we’ll need to reintroduce into American culture the notion that human flourishing ranges wider and deeper than calculations of mere happiness.

Yes, that’s it! We’ve placed too much importance on happiness! That must be it!

Hey, here’s a novel idea. How about asking why adults without children are happier than adults with children and working to correct this? I think there are a lot of ways our society makes child-rearing harder and less fun than it needs to be. But none of that interests Last. Last’s solution is not to ask why raising children decreases an adult’s happiness but rather to suggest that happiness is overrated. Yay. Right?

How does Last suggest we go about de-emphasizing happiness? One word: religion. No, really. Really really.

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.

Yes, Last actually wrote that. Really. Here’s how critic Philip Cohen responded:

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…”

Hi! Me! Multiple-child atheist here! We really do exist!

Last is really and truly suggesting that we encourage religion publicly because religion teaches people to de-emphasize the importance of happiness and urges them to have more children. Really.

Ugh. Just, ugh.

I looked and looked and could not find out whether or not Last has any children. Since I would think that is something he would want to emphasize if he did, I’m going to guess not. Still, I almost have to wonder if he is attempting a parody when he says on the one hand that people need to have more children and on the other hand that no one in their right mind would have more than one child unless they believe a supernatural being ordered them to. And the idea that people just have a first child out of curiosity, vanity, or naivete? And seriously, the solution he puts forward to his coming demographic collapse is is that we need to stop worrying about being happy?

I don’t even.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.