Jonathan V. Last is a senior writer for the Weekly Standard, and author of the excellent book What to Expect When No One's Expecting: America's Coming Demographic Disaster.
(See my mini-review here).
Jonathan graciously agreed to answer some questions about his book, his thoughts on higher ed, and about the process of creating the audiobook version.
Josh’s Question 1: The Higher Ed Question
We are hear to talk about your audiobook experience, but I can’t resist asking you (at least one) question about the substance of What to Expect When No One's Expecting. My question is about America’s One Child Policy (as you call the forces pushing U.S. fertility down) and the response (or lack thereof) of academic leaders.
We don’t seem to hear many university presidents talking about the risks to higher ed if the U.S. follows fertility path of Europe, Japan or South Korea. This is strange to me, as the last time I checked the health of much of the higher ed business depends on strong cohorts of traditional college-age (18 to 22) young people. In fact, we’ve already seen a leveling off of these cohorts in the Northeast.
So my question is, have you taken your research and message to campus? Have you engaged with presidents and provosts about what role they could play in bringing the issues of less babies to the conversation?
Jonathan’s Answer to Question 1:
I’ve spoken at a bunch of colleges and enjoyed meeting professors and students, but I haven’t bumped into many administrators, so I can’t speak to whether or not they’re interested in demographics.
That said, I have a few observations about higher education as a business. First, I don’t think it’s necessarily threatened by our demographic slowdown because there are two ways to grow a business: get more customers, or charge more for the product. Colleges have shown a remarkable ability to use the latter pathway over the last 50 years.
Just objectively speaking, after healthcare, higher education is probably the sector of the American economy most in need of reform. It’s a mess, with banks and schools taking advantage of parents and students to the detriment not just of individuals and families, but the wider economy itself. And don’t take my dark-hearted conservative word for it—this is what Larry Summers and Janet Yellen think, too.
All of which is to say that I more or less believe that reforming our higher-ed system is one of the next big topics for discussion in America. And it just so happens that one of the happy side-effects of cleaning up the dysfunction will probably be to make it easier for middle-class twenty-somethings to have the babies they seem to want, because college turns out to be one of the big drags on fertility achievement.
Josh’s Question 2: The Audiobook Question
Okay, let’s talk about audiobooks. First off, you did a really amazing job narrating your own book. I actually did not realize that you were narrating the book, as you have real talent as a performer in this area.
Can you talk about your reasons for wanting to narrate What to Expect When No One’s Expecting?
What was the experience like? How long did it take? How has having an audio version of the book impacted the book’s reach? Are you an audiobook listener? Would you consider moving into a side career as a an audiobook narrator?
Jonathan’s Answer to Question 2:
I never expected there would be a demand for What to Expect to be turned into an audiobook. Look, I’m very proud of it, because I think it’s probably the funniest book ever written about demographics. But that’s a really low bar and at the end of the day, that final prepositional clause is still the operative part, meaning that What to Expect is full of numbers and data and whatnot. Then again, I can’t imagine anyone listening to Capital in the Twenty-First Century for 25 hours instead of reading it—but plenty of people did just that.
Anyway, when my publisher told me that people were asking for an audiobook version they gave me a choice of hiring a pro or reading it myself. I listen to a lot of audiobooks—all fiction—and have an enormous amount of respect for the pros. For my money, Simon Vance is every bit as talented as a great actor, like Alec Baldwin.
I realized that a pro would do a much better job than I would. But on the other hand, I thought it would be an interesting experience to record it. So I made the somewhat selfish decision to do it myself, because I generally believe that in life when you’re presented with the opportunity to try interesting things, you should say “yes.”
But I’m gratified that you liked the listening experience, because I did approach it seriously and tried to treat it like a performance, rather than a reading, so that you’re hearing the jokes and the stories pretty much in the same voice I had in my head as I was writing them.
Josh’s Question 3: The Political Question
Now that we have talked about audiobooks, I want to go back to the substance of What to Expect When No One’s Expecting. Or maybe the politics. This seems like an issue that those of us on different sides of the political spectrum could actually work together.
You talk in your book about the social and economic costs incurred when fertility falls well below replacement, and the benefits of closing the gap between desired and actual fertility. If we stick to that focus I think that we could find lots of common ground across the ideological spectrum.
The opportunity to actually work on a policy issue with a Republican is really appealing to me. (At least it is novel). Have you had liberals (or even moderates) - people who vote Democrat - reach out to you to figure out how to collaborate around the ideas in your book? Have you reached out? Given that you are a journalist (and I am an academic) what would that collaboration even look like?
Jonathan’s Answer to Question 3:
I always starts with the assumption that there are plenty of things on which people from opposite sides of the political spectrum can work together. I really wrote What to Expect for a (politically) ecumenical audience, which is why I try to be honest about my own leanings and transparent about setting them aside. It is—I hope—a very non-judgmental book. Or at least that’s how I meant it.
Maybe that’s because most of my friends and family are liberal Democrats who I love and respect. There is a very real “team” aspect to politics, where being a Democrat or a Republican is like rooting for the University of Michigan or Michigan State. I get that. But once you move away from electoral politics to questions about how our shared society functions on a day-to-day basis, I think it’s often easier to find agreement than we sometimes fear.
And on this particular subject, I think agreement is the most natural thing in the world. The demographic establishment—which tends to be fairly liberal—is largely in agreement about where we are heading demographically (towards older societies and fewer people) and what this means (big problems for the welfare state and the macroeconomic environment). The man who first got me interested in all of this is Phil Longman, who’s a fellow at the New America Foundation and an editor at the Washington Monthly. So the fact that I was brought to this subject by one of America’s most important progressive intellectuals ought to show that there needn’t be a lot of daylight between people from divergent ideological places.
If there is a way out of the low-fertility trap—and mind you, I don’t take it as given that there is—then it will center around exactly what you suggest: Helping men and women achieve their fertility ideals. In America (and most of the world) people under-achieve their notions of ideal fertility—that is, they don’t have as many kids as they say they would like to. In America, we undershoot by about 0.4 kids.
We need to understand the causality of this gap in a fuller way if we’re going to get to a place where we can formulate policies which attempt to bridge it. Granted, there will always be some fringe folks who object to anyone, anywhere, having babies, because they want to protect Mother Gaia. But I can’t think of a compelling reason why pretty much everyone else—NASCAR fans and NPR listeners, Elizabeth Warren and Scott Walker—wouldn’t be able to get behind an agenda to help men and women achieve their fertility ideals.
That said, in a perfect world, policy will flow from data and understanding, so first we have to get our arms around the causality of the gap. And that’s a project that’s going to take smart people on both the left and the right.
What questions do you have for Jonathan?