Book Review: What to Expect When No One’s Expecting


This book captivated my attention for lots of nerdy and personal reasons. For starters, I’m a childless only child, so low rates of reproduction are a near and dear topic to me 🙂 Secondly, having studied population ecology as it relates to animals, learning how differently it works in humans is fascinating.

During Chapter 1, I almost hurled this book out the window, because the white, middle-class male writer seemed really judgey, blaming women’s rising rates of college education, participation in the workforce, delayed childbearing, and the Pill for America’s sub-replacement fertility rate, as though those were all really terrible things. Barefoot and pregnant! It’s your duty! But I read on mostly out of curiosity.

The Magical 2.1

Let me backtrack to define “fertility rate” – it’s a snapshot of the average number of children per woman in a given area. “Replacement fertility” is considered 2.1 – replacing the woman and her mate, with 0.1 extra to replace those who die early. Anything below this rate results in a population that will eventually die out, and anything above this means a population will grow.

It may surprise you to discover that the U.S. fertility rate is only 1.8. A little ditty called “The Population Bomb,” written by Paul Ehrlich in 1968, hyped up a big scare that the world population was going to continue growing exponentially until hundreds of millions of people died of famine in the 1970s.

Although he was wrong, this idea of a rampant population explosion took very strong hold in the collective psyche. I see it in article comments all the time – “The world is way too overpopulated already!” But yet here we are. Plenty of food for everyone (although it does not get distributed to everyone – totally separate topic).

If you take the time to look at fertility numbers, particularly since 1960, what you see will shock you. It certainly did me. Here’s a list of every country’s fertility rate in 1960 and 2015:

As it turns out, “modernized” countries are universally below 2.1 now – some well below, and falling quickly. From the link above, comparing 1960 vs. 2015:

  • World, 5.0 vs. 2.5
  • USA, 3.7 vs. 1.8
  • Mexico, 6.8 vs. 2.2
  • Brazil, 6.1 vs. 1.7
  • China, 5.7 vs. 1.6
  • India, 5.9 vs. 2.4
  • South Korea, 6.1 vs. 1.2 (current lowest)
  • Singapore, 5.8 vs. 1.2 (tied for lowest)
  • Kenya, 7.9 vs. 3.9
  • Rwanda, 8.2 (!!) vs. 4.0

I didn’t mention Japan or any European countries because their trends are remarkably similar: two-point-something in 1960 vs. one-point-something now – so their fall hasn’t been as dramatic, but their numbers are certainly below replacement.

Japan has the added constriction of near-zero immigration; their population is already shrinking, with a rapidly aging population and young people hyper-focused on careers and not super interested in dating. I think anyone can agree that’s a crisis for a technological superpower.

Practically the only countries clocking in well above replacement these days are in Africa – although they have also declined significantly. Can you imagine 7 or 8 children on average for every single woman? It’s mind-boggling.

What Does it Mean?

Here’s where it gets interesting. Modern life itself seems to be driving down fertility for the reasons mentioned above, plus many others that are outlined in the book if you’re curious.

As a thought experiment, following out the trend lines for a few hundred years means people will quickly go extinct in Europe, China, and the Americas. If modernization continues and fertility trend lines continue downward in Africa, India, and elsewhere, they’ll be on their way out eventually too. My brain is exploding here.

Why Did Old-Timey People Have so Many Kids?

“Back in the day,” you needed a small workforce for your farm. Plus a few were likely to die in infancy. Boys might go off to fight wars and never come back. Women really could not go out and get a job hundreds of years ago, so young marriage and poppin’ out 6 or 8 kids was life’s business (fantastic if you’re into it – eeeeek! if you’re not).

Also, before Social Security came around in the wake of FDR, children were your retirement program. You quite literally HAD to have them so someone would care for you in your old age.

Changing Attitudes

As the world modernized, life became more about fulfilling your personal dreams as opposed to fitting into and caring about a community. As the author, himself a father of 3 puts it, kids are a lot of work – and they really do not increase your happiness! But “things are more important than happiness,” he says.

Hmm, I am starting to see why some people would rather pursue their goals and happiness than come up with $1,000/month for daycare and $100k for college for the reward of having offspring. I love kids, I really do, but there are some hard sacrifices to be made if you plan on having one.

Fertility Bribes

There is a long section in the book about various countries with perilous low fertility, from Sweden and Russia to Japan and Singapore, that have tried providing healthy monetary rewards to get people to have more babies.

Everything from cash bonuses that increase per child ($9,000 for the second! $13,000 for your third!), to free state-run daycare, to a year-plus of paid maternity leave … none of it made enough of a dent to get above 2.1. I was actually quite amazed that you can’t bribe people into having kids they don’t want.


A seemingly obvious solution here is immigration. Maybe now you can see why a shrinking Germany, desperate for healthy young workers to prop up their economy, let in 1 million Syrian refugees in a year’s time, although it was certainly not a universally popular move.

From this perspective, we should just about be begging immigrants to come to America before their own countries can’t afford to spare them. Social Security is about to go over a cliff as Baby Boomers age into the program with so few tax payers supporting each one. In 1960, there were 5 workers for every retiree collecting. In 2010, the number was 2.9 and dropping fast.

No matter how you slice it, the math does not compute, unless in a few decades our taxes get hiked to  50%+ of our income. Current figures estimate around half of Americans have zero retirement savings. Guess all the old and childless in 2050 will just have to starve to death in the streets or find the next Dr. Kevorkian? That’s a legitimate question with so many moral implicatons.

The Environment

Depending on on how you feel about people, the human race dying out is either a great thing or terrible thing. Personally, I am super concerned about protecting the environment from modern-day pollution, plastic trash, etc. So, it seems a hefty cut to human population in the next 50+ years would go a long way toward decreasing those things.

HOWEVER. The reason I care about the environment is exactly because I want there to be a habitable earth for future generations of people to live on! Even if I don’t have kids, I want YOUR kids and grandkids to have clean water to drink, temperatures that aren’t too hot for crops to grow, etc.

In conclusion: Future parents, do not be shamed that “the world is already overpopulated!” If you want to have ’em, have ’em. Also, please reduce your use of plastic, recycle what you do use, drive the most fuel-efficient car possible, and avoid buying tons of disposable crap for no particular reason that will quickly end up in a landfill.

I would love to know your thoughts on fertility rates in the U.S. and the world! What do you think? Welcome more immigrants? Cash & prizes for babies? Discuss.

One thought on “Book Review: What to Expect When No One’s Expecting

  1. Human race as a whole ain’t going anywhere. We are too well adapted to live in every possible environment. OTOH, the shifting patterns will be hard from individual perspectives. As for the argument at hand, it seems to me that as soon as kids get expensive, people have fewer. But I opted out of that discussion a long time ago.


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