Jonathan Last’s What to Expect When No One’s Expecting

Jonathan Last’s thoughtful and important new book, What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster is a fun read. Policy questions aside, Last provides a fascinating and crystal-clear account of America’s demographic decline. There’s plenty to learn on related issues as well. Last explains, for example, why the recent plateau in divorce statistics may be a bit of an illusion. Family decline is very possibly a good deal more advanced than we’ve realized.

On controversial policy issues, Last is appropriately modest. The constraints on our ability to have children are so powerful nowadays that it seems futile and counterproductive to try to convince people who don’t want to have children to change their minds, or to propose the sort of government financial incentives that have never worked. So Last instead suggests steps that would make it easier for people who already want to have children to do so.

These ideas are preliminary, yet fascinating. Last begins with a great strategy for popping the higher education bubble (higher ed being one of the chief barriers to parenthood.)

Then, since access to affordable land is another major constraint on child-bearing, Last argues for steps to make suburbs more accessible to cities, especially by building more highways. Last also suggests that telecommuting could be game-changer, turning homes once again into centers of economic activity. Suburban telecommuting may even allow for a restoration of three-generation neighborhoods or households, says Last, with grandparents caring for grandchildren, while being cared for by their adult children at home.

It would take a more extended effort from Last to play these ideas out, but what’s striking is how diametrically opposed his vision is to the regnant aspirations of the left. Today’s rage for “sustainability” is largely an effort to draw people out of suburbs and press them instead into tiny, densely-packed urban apartments. Blocking highway construction is a favorite tactic of these greens. That can only compound what Last calls our “coming demographic disaster.” So the supposed solution to the left’s favored cataclysm of global warming is apparently the worst possible step to take in response to the right’s disaster scenario of demographic-economic meltdown. It’s a case of dueling catastrophes.

The left’s anti-suburban project draws heavily on the claim that suburbs kill community, a narrative that seems outdated given the impersonal nature of today’s urban apartments complexes. Last is suggesting that, with a few tweaks, community may actually have more chance at a comeback in the suburbs than the city. That is a novel, fascinating, and potentially very important idea.

At any rate, do yourself a favor and have a look at What to Expect When No One’s Expecting. (And catch John Miller’s “Between the Covers” interview with Last.)

Stanley Kurtz — Stanley Kurtz graduated from Haverford College and holds a Ph.D. in social anthropology from Harvard University. He did his field work in India and taught at Harvard and the University ...

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