What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: A Recent Review

The doomsday stylings of journalist Jonathan Last have been critiqued by demographer David Coleman in a recent review of Last’s What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster in the academic journal Population and Development Review (you can read the first page of the four page review here).

Last book cover

Some of you may have heard about Jonathan Last and his tendency toward what Coleman calls “disaster demography.” Jonathan Last is what we here at w{n}hab! would refer to (correction: have referred to) as a virulent pronatalist.

In his What to Expect, Last argues that concerns about the “looming danger of overpopulation” are “all bunk.” He goes on to lament that too many middle-class Americans only have one child and that “an alarming number of upscale professionals don’t even go that far – they have dogs, not kids.” (Heavens! Dogs?!?!)

[Though Jonathan Last is unlikely to approve, we’d like to divert your attention briefly in order to give the shout-out that dogs so richly deserve by sharing this video of 10 cute dogs: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=28xjtYY3V3Q. Yay, dogs!! Certainly the ratio of 10 dogs to 1 baby presented in this clip is far more sustainable than the other way ’round.]

Where were we? Ah, yes, an accomplished scholar’s critique of  Last’s arguments.

For Last, it seems that only the middle class and upscale professionals matter; these are the people for whom birth rates have taken a dip and these are the people Last would like to see take more inspiration from rabbits.

Coleman calls Last to task on this and a number of other fronts, noting problems both with the book’s presentation of data and the conclusions drawn. For example,

  • Coleman describes the data Last presents as “snapshots,” noting the book’s lack of tables or graphs which could show actual trends over time or projections of fertility.
  • Coleman notes that “US birth rates have been among the highest in the industrial world for a century,” a fact that leads him to describe Last’s excited claims of impending doom and gloom as “inappropriate.”
  • Last is noted to have “lampooned out of existence” the idea that population growth might lead to environmental or resource concerns. It seems, for Last, the world’s resources are infinite.
  • Last apparently suggests that colleges be made more family friendly so as to encourage reproduction before graduation, an idea which Coleman rightly refers to as “daft and contradictory.”

As Coleman notes early in his review, Last “cites a lot of demographic data and many ideas.” If ever there was a more milquetoasty statement, I’d like to see it.*

In the end, the one bone Coleman throws Last is to call the book “thought-provoking.” Of course, Coleman also refers to Last’s presentation as “partial and selective” and “proceeding from fixed beliefs.” In sum, if we ask Coleman, it seems Last’s book provides at best an incomplete tale. It seems we’ll have to track down Paul Harvey if we want to know the rest of the story.

*Gee, now that I think about it, I think perhaps I’ve made more milquetoasty statements when grading undergraduate research papers; papers by people who are totally new to the research process but are super excited about it and whose hearts you don’t want to break by telling them they’ve totally missed the mark. When I read a paper steeped in unfounded claims or that lacks all common sense, I’m inclined to provide neutral feedback like, “This paper uses words organized into sentences” and ” You have correctly followed the requirement to number your pages.” I may have even written, “You cite a lot of data and many ideas” a time or two.

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