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A review of What to Expect When No One's Expecting: America's Coming Demographic Disaster, by Jonathan V. Last

This week, the press pays tribute to the 50th anniversary of The Feminine Mystique. In 1963, author Betty Friedan extolled, “We can no longer ignore that voice within women that says: ‘I want something more than my husband and my children and my home.' ”

In his first book, What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster (Encounter Books, $23.99), Jonathan V. Last offers a contrary, contemporary perspective: our population is aging, and since children are our future, we must recruit more mothers.

Age-wise, the U.S. will mirror one giant Florida by 2050, according to Last and his statistics. This will have major repercussions for the country, beginning with its very flawed Social Security system. There are other implications: future America may include a smaller military, because there are few people to join up.

Last argues, “An older society with fewer children will find it difficult to project power in the wider world,” and “If America wants to continue to lead the world, we need to have more babies.”

His thesis brings to mind the question posed by a New York Times op-ed written by David J. Rothkopf in October 2011. “Isn’t the important question not how we remain No.1 but rather, what we want to be best at – and even, whether we want to lead at all?”

Here are the facts. In 2012, America had its lowest birthrate since 1920. But the nation doesn't lead the world in fertility decline: other countries are faring much worse, especially Italy, Japan, Poland, Russia and Singapore. The United States also has two significant advantages: a large influx of immigrants, and a plenty of individuals who want to be moms and dads.

Last, who is a senior writer at the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard, is upfront about his social views. “Yes, I’m one of those anti-abortion nut jobs who thinks that every embryo is sacred life and abortion is killing an innocent and blah-blah-blah.”

And Last believes overpopulation is a myth. He’s anti-college, and decries the separation of church and state. As for the dangers of global warming? “Even if you take climate change to be real, and serious, and man-made, you still have to reckon that the environmental impact of ‘overpopulation’ is, at worst, a mixed bag.”

Reading What to Expect When No One’s Expecting would vex many. I’d guess that every single American woman could take offense to some part of Last’s text, which is, at points, condescending, sarcastic and insincere. Six people blurbed the book, none female.

In Last's book, career-driven women who decide not to have children come across as 1) sub-human and 2) lazy, unwilling to sacrifice self-centeredness for the common good.

Yet he does describe the the entry of women into the workforce as “enormously beneficial,” and stresses his aversion to the “barefoot and pregnant” trope.

Women who are unable to have children due to medical conditions are not addressed; neither is adoption. But on the subject of later-life in vitro fertilization or gestational carriers, Last writes, “If we reach the point where people are so busy with their own lives that they outsource baby-making to a lab, then it’s not clear why they’d be willing to yoke themselves into parenthood at all.”

Naturally, he is against couples living together. If two people plan on getting married, they should just do so before the move-in, so they can start having children and lower their risk of future divorce. Nevermind the counter-argument that cohabitating can prevent ultimately incompatible people from marrying and reproducing.

Last's weakest digression is devoted to the car seat, which is “objectively pro-child, it is also vaguely anti-family.” In his mind, they’re bulky, so you can fit fewer kids in a car. “As a side note, [car seats] didn’t radically transform auto safety, either. The most optimistic estimate is that between 1975 and 2005, car seats saved a grand total of 7,896 lives. Every one of them is a miracle for which we should be thankful. But saving 263 lives a year isn’t exactly conquering polio,” writes Last, a father of three who drives a minivan.

After all the advocating for parenthood, Last ends without the expected sentimentality: “Having kids is, literally, no fun…But pleasure is a shallow goal and the well-examined life requires more. It demands seriousness of purpose. Nothing is more serious than having children.”

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Jenna Marotta

Columnist (Books)

Jenna Marotta is a party reporter for New York magazine and has written for their five blogs plus The Daily Beast, The A.V. Club, Jezebel, Nerve, Time Out New York, Time Out Chicago, and Chicago magazine. She is the books editor at SmartPlanet. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure