John Anderson Direct: With Nicholas Eberstadt, Political Economist & Author

John is joined by Nicholas Eberstadt for a Direct interview focused on his recent book, Men Without Work. Nicholas scrutinises economic figures in the United States, arguing that the often-cited unemployment rate doesn't account for the millions of prime-age men who have distanced themselves from work and civil society more broadly.



John Anderson: My guest today is Nicholas Eberstadt. He holds the Henry Went Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute, where he researches and writes extensively on demographics and economic development in a range of different geographies. His [00:01:00] titles include the poverty of the Poverty Rate. In 2008, Russia’s Peacetime Demographic Crisis 2010, and most recently in 2022, men Without Work, America’s Invisible Crisis Updated post Covid.

Nicholas has a PhD in Political Economy and Government, and he holds a Masters of Science from the London School of Economics. In 2012, he was awarded the prestigious Bradley Prize in America, and that award recognizes extraordinary talent and dedication to American exceptionalism. And I think our conversation will reveal just how capable Nicholas’s mind actually is.

Nicholas, thanks so much for joining us, and it’s great to see you again. For our listeners and viewers we recently dined together in Sydney. [00:02:00] And we’re here to talk about your more recent work – and talking of work – can you kick us off by saying that we often complain about work? We see it as more of a curse, but a blessing in reality…

Surely work is good for us and for men in particular. Given that we’re going to be talking about an astonishing number of people, men who are not working, why is work good for us?

Nicholas Eberstadt: John, it’s wonderful to see you again. Thank you for inviting me to share this discussion with you. Of course I’m not going to tell you that money doesn’t matter (because it does), but there’s so much more to work than just the paycheck.

Important as that is money. Work is a service to other people that helps complete yourself, that helps one’s own fulfillment one’s [00:03:00] own attainment one’s own satisfaction. It’s perhaps it sounds hackneyed to say that there’s a dignity to work, but the reason it’s a cliche is because cliches have so much truth in them.

If you want to get into the metaphysics of this There was that funny Greek guy Aristotle long ago who said that human beings are social creatures and we suffer if we’re not connected to society, if we’re not, if we’re men connected through work, through family, through our own communities, through religion or faith there’s a reason that being placed in solitary confinement in the penitentiary is considered by many to be a cruel and unusual punishment because we can’t flourish if we’re not connected to our world.

And being connected to the work world is [00:04:00] critically important.

Men Without Work

John Anderson: That’s a great segue into talking more about the work that you’ve done and here’s a magnificently interesting little book Men Without Work Post Pandemic Edition that you put together. Now, Nicholas, despite and I find this quite bewildering in a way, even having had years of involvement at the heart of economic policy making in this country, we’re not a situation across the west where despite the economic problems and so forth that countries face, unemployment is at record low levels in your country and indeed in mine.

Yet bosses everywhere are screaming for more work. We’re farmers. We can’t get machinery attended to because they’ve got backlogs, because they can’t get techs. You go to a restaurant in Sydney and ‘we’re closed on Thursday night, we can’t get enough staff to run our normal timetable’, and that’s common to America as well.

I know that. But. While they’re screaming for [00:05:00] work, you’ve got a staggering number of American men of prime age working age, who are not making themselves available. And you’ve written that in early 2022, more than 7 million prime age men. That’s about the male workforce of Australia. By the way, when we’re talking about neither working or looking for work, more than 11% of the prime age male pool are involved in this.

That’s 7 million men who can work simply not working. What on earth are they doing with their days?

Nicholas Eberstadt: We have a good clue as to what they’re doing with their time, John, because they. Tell us about what they’re doing with their days. There’s a self-reporting survey called the American Time Use Survey, which our government mainly deploys to [00:06:00] try to figure out when people are working and for commuting and things like that.

But all adults are sampled for this, including this pool. Still over 7 million of prime age men, 25 to 54 years old. At the prime of life and at this critical period in the life cycle where they should be forming families and raising children. Of the seven plus million workforce dropouts, about 10%, little over 10% are actually full-time students.

They’re basically training to get back to work with a better job and better wages, and their time use does not look so much different from employed men. But, when you look at what I guess in Britain is called NEET (do you say that also in Australia?) neither employed nor in education or training…

When you look at that [00:07:00] huge group of well over 6 million prime age males the story they’re telling about their lives is really pretty devastating. It’s pretty distressing. They report, they basically don’t do civil society. There’s almost no worship, almost no volunteering, almost no charitable work.

They’ve got a lot of time on their hands, but they report doing strangely little help around the home or help with other people at home. What they say that they’re doing, John, is they say that they’re watching screens. These reports don’t tell us what they’re watching or what sorts of screens. But about 2000 hours a year sitting in front of screens watching 2000 hours a year would qualify as a pretty good full-time job.

And this is so to speak, their full-time [00:08:00] job. What makes this look even more distressing? Cause every so often these surveys ask these male workforce dropouts about other questions. One of the questions asked right before, before the pandemic was on the eve of the pandemic, Was about medication, pain medication.

Almost half of these dropouts reported that they were taking pain medication every single day. Not necessarily opioids, but pain medication every single day. So we have this self painted tableau not just of spending all day long playing World of Warcraft or Call of Duty, but playing World of Warcraft or Call of Duty stoned.

That’s not the way that you get back into the workforce. It may be the way that you prepare yourself for a death of despair, though.

John Anderson: [00:09:00] Now you chart out in this something that’s really quite staggering, that the, those numbers of men who are neither in the workforce nor looking for work is at historically higher levels, even compared to what we know of the Great Depression years in America.

Nicholas Eberstadt: It’s an astonishing thing, John, because if you take a look at what the numbers actually reveal instead of listening to the happy talk that we hear from Washington or the Fed, our Federal Reserve, or Central Bank you find out that we’re mainly being given numbers that were created by an employment system designed to fight the last war.

And the last war, of course, was after the Great Depression. So we have a system that’s very good at telling how many jobs there are. Very good [00:10:00] at telling how many people are unemployed. When our labour statistics system was put together, I don’t think it would’ve crossed anybody’s mind that a prime age man who didn’t have a job wouldn’t be looking for one.

But we’ve had this slow but really dramatic revolution in the post-war era in the US at any rate, where as we are speaking this month the latest jobs reports show that for every prime age man in America who doesn’t have work and is looking for work, the technical definition of unemployed, there are over four guys who are neither working nor looking for work.

If you’re not counting them, you are ignoring over four fifths of the problem. And unfortunately, that’s the way we’ve been proceeding. If instead you just look [00:11:00] at the work rate, at the employment to population You find out that the work rate for prime age men in America is lower than it was in 1940 when we started accurately measuring this stuff back in 1940, we were talking about the tail end of the Great Depression in the USA and the national unemployment rate was almost 15%.

So we have a situation in the United States of America today where prime aged men basically are, have great depression scale work problems. This is not being hyperbolic. If you to be a little bit more tech technical, if you look at all of the 21st century from year 2000 to the present, the average proportion of men with no paid work is.

About a [00:12:00] point and a half, a percentage point and a half higher than it was in 1940 when we started measuring this. So the 21st century has been like a 1939 scale work problem for men in the USA.


Economic Costs

John Anderson: That really is staggering and is so often the public perception is a vastly different thing to what’s really happening in people’s lives.

There has to be a major economic cost. You allude to that and it shows up despite the, what you call the happy numbers. I think politicians everywhere bragging about the levels of employment and how strongly economy is how well it’s going. But we know in your country and indeed in Australia, that’s not the on ground experience.

People feel that it’s nowhere near as good. , the politicians are telling us on the ground it doesn’t feel well because what your painting has to have a real economic cost. It means the American economy simply isn’t performing as well as it should. If those six or 7 million men of [00:13:00] prime working age were actively engaged in the workplace, there has to be an economic cost just as there is a big social cost.

Nicholas Eberstadt: John, there’s a huge economic cost. Part of the reason for the great discontent in my country today part of the reason for the plummeting trust in institutions has to do with economic performance. Now it is true. With the help of free money from our central bank and a few other little additional bits of ingredients, we’ve been able to generate an extraordinary amount of private wealth, although we haven’t done it nearly as evenly as you all have done in Australia.

If you look at the economic growth numbers in the US they have been really [00:14:00] troubling not just during the pandemic crisis, not just in the wake of the great recession, but for the entirety of the 21st century in the us nowadays, and by nowadays I mean in 21st century America, and we’re now over 22 years into this, the average per capita growth tempo for the country as a whole has been barely over 1% per year over this entire long span of time on the real existing growth tempo. It will take 63 years for a doubling of per capita incomes. In other words it wouldn’t happen during one’s own work life might happen during your kids’ work life.

It’ll happen during your grandchildren’s [00:15:00] work life. But this is a radical slowdown in economic productivity from the previous half century, from 1950 to the year 2000. The retreat or flight from work by man is only one of a number of different factors, obviously, but there’s nothing good that comes out of this flight from work by man.

Slower growth, bigger income and wealth gaps, more welfare dependence, probably bigger public ublic deficits. More pressure on fragile families, less social mobility, less social capital, less trust in our political institutions. There’s nothing good that comes out of it.

John Anderson: You were kind about Australia, but we have the same problem. High immigration is pumping GDP up, or has been with an interruption from Covid to make the [00:16:00] numbers look better than they really are. So the on ground feel is worse and buried in there, of course, is this real problem of the distribution of wealth. Young people can’t get a start. Governments have been looking for inflation to devalue the debts they’ve built up, which are now more horrendous than ever.

Suddenly inflation’s arrived. And that’s a whole story in itself, how to deal with it and the pain that will cause. But the reality is that it’s been there in asset prices. So young people find it very hard to get a start and the start forming a family. So we’re on the same trajectory. Let me come to one thing you touched on there, of course.

You’ve had a sugar hit in the economy, particularly out of covid, and a massive amount of money pumped into the private sector, out of the public sector. The nightmare being, of course, that their borrowings against, you could say our children, but we might as well say now the unborn, we’re not living within our means, and Covid possibly made it [00:17:00] even worse.

So there are economic and massive social ramifications out of this. I would’ve thought. Have we, are we in danger of encouraging people not to work, to stay at home, to expect somehow that society will support them? I don’t want to be too cruel here. I just want to say, is there a danger of sending very bad messages?

Nicholas Eberstadt: Let me talk about the United States because I’m familiar with our situation here. We have 4 million fewer people in the workforce today than we would have expected on pre Covid trends at the same time that we have this unnatural peacetime labour shortage. By a curious coincidence. The jump in the number of unfilled jobs was about 4 million.

In comparison with pre covid times the reason [00:18:00] that our workforce is down this much is below trend by 4 million is not because of the catastrophe. COVID was a catastrophe in the United States. We lost over a million people in Covid, in the covid crisis. Most of those people, the overwhelming majority of them were beyond working age.

There are some people in the United States who are suffering long covid and who say that long covid is the reason they’re not in our workforce today. And there are hundreds of thousands of them, maybe 400,000. We’re a big country. 400,000 is a lot of people, but it’s not 4 million people, as I just mentioned.

Most of the gap that I’ve just described is due to the new face of the flight from work in America. It’s not just the prime age guys who aren’t showing up in the [00:19:00] workforce. We have a lot of people over the age of 55 men and women alike who were in the workforce before the pandemic who aren’t.

Now we have prime aged women as well, who aren’t showing up. And I think you can’t understand what’s happened with the slump in manpower availability unless you look at the unintended consequences of our covid relief policies. The government not unreasonably, was afraid that the lockdown was going to bring a freeze up of the economic system, maybe even a second Great Depression. They opened up all the stops in monetary and fiscal policy to try to prevent this from happening. And in fact maybe they couldn’t tell this ahead of time, but they overshot the goal through [00:20:00] borrowed public money transferred to households through a variety of programs.

The US disposable income in 2020 and 2021 rose above trend. Americans never had as much money to spend as they had in 2020 and 2021. It’s the only national economic crisis I’m aware of where personal disposable income and purchasing power actually increases. Americans had so much money in their pockets during the Covid emergency that they couldn’t spend it all, or they didn’t care to spend it all. Our personal private savings rate more than doubled in 2020 and 2021. People banked these transfers and the nest egg just from the covid transfers alone. Apart from the wealth effects of zero interest rate policies or just the transfer, nest egg was over two and a half [00:21:00] trillion US dollars about $25,000 a household for persons at the bottom of the bottom half of the income distribution, of the wealth distribution.

That was a lot of money. And I think this helps to explain why so many people in the United States have taken vacations from the workforce or maybe gone into a premature and perhaps unsustainable retirement.

John Anderson: So they really, to put this really crudely, future Americans are paying for current Americans not to work.

Nicholas Eberstadt: Oh, absolutely. Cause it’s borrowed money. That’s, yes, public debt. As long as the debt does not get defaulted upon. And we haven’t done that. As long as one assumes that the public debt is going to be paid, eventually it’s a future tax on [00:22:00] future workers. And in good measure on workers who haven’t yet been born.

John Anderson: You and many others, Warren Farrell, David Goodhart in the UK, Victor Davis Hanson, have highlighted the huge social impact of shifting manufacturing industries from America. It’s always been a scene that by the rest of the world is a manufacturing powerhouse, particularly during the Second World War. And a lot of that’s gone to Asia and to Mexico part of the American psych.

I think going right back to Benjamin Franklin and the idea that Americans ideally should be a nation of farmers and productive people, this idea, if you’re involved in farming and manufacturing, motorcars and steel goods and those sorts of things, shipyards had great sort of. What would you call it? Prestige as central to the narrative of who you were and who your country was. Do you think there’s an element of the economy evolving in such a way that, that [00:23:00] there, there’s a substrate of men who struggle to find meaning or purpose and a sense of vocation in the way job markets are emerging?

Not to be critical of what’s happening is say, is it having an impact though on people’s perceptions of the worthwhileness of their work? Going back to the first talk, first question of the value.

Nicholas Eberstadt: There’s a lot that’s been written on that and certainly one can make the argument that men may not be quite as adept at the caring economy and health in the health area, in education as women are.

There may be some truth to that, but I’m a little more cautious than some other people are about that argument. We, if you want to put it that way, we lost all our farm jobs before World War II. Practically at this point in the United [00:24:00] States, there are more dry cleaning establishments than farms in the US, and we didn’t have a men without work problem with the transition from farms to manufacturing. We’ve had a declining share of manufacturing jobs in the US economy, more or less since the Korean War. And other countries have as well. We seem to be we seem to have a larger share of our prime age men neither working nor looking for work, than many other countries that have gone through the similar decline in manufacturing, including Australia, I mean from France or Canada or Sweden. All have some of this problem, but not so accentuated as in the United States. And remember manufacturing isn’t the only sector where you get to work with your [00:25:00] hands in the United States.

There’s a whole there’s a whole huge segment of repair of machinery in the United States. All of the stuff for homes and HVAC, all of the construction industry. We’re short, hundreds and hundreds of thousands of positions in the construction industry alone. And these are not all positions where you need to have an engineering degree.

A lot of these have as a skills basis the skill of at least initially just showing up regularly on time, not stoned, at least at the moment. This is what you see all across the US with this labour shortage. So I think that we’ve got something else going on in addition to whatever sort of, like historical romantic idea [00:26:00] we’ve had about farming and manufacturing.

Universal Basic Income

John Anderson: Now, to go to a slightly sensitive area, and I should preface this by saying I know that we both believe in a helping hand for people in genuine need Compassion is important, but I think you’ve written and we should always be prepared to, look after the, those in genuine need. But you’ve specifically mentioned the pernicious effect of disability insurance, what we might call welfare safety nets more generally in Australian parents upon many who may be relying on it, perhaps more than they should.

Encouraged to think that it’s, it doesn’t bring some moral responsibility to ask the hard questions. Do I need this is this fair to my fellow taxpayers and so forth. Now, as I look at America, the traditional view is that Europe has very comprehensive, perhaps overdone safety, welfare [00:27:00] networks.

Australia, somewhere in the middle of America is quite lean on those things. But in fact, you actually have a monstrous, a very big disability insurance set of arrangements. and they do seem, do you think they have play as you put yourself? I think they, they’re playing a role in contributing to unemployment by creating perverse incentives, which in the end turn out, of course, not to be a compassionate thing to do to people.

Nicholas Eberstadt: .

John, I don’t think that I or anybody else who plays with statistics can prove that our awful archipelago of broken disability insurance programs in the US has caused this problem. What I can show pretty clearly and pretty incontestably is that our crazy quilt of disability programs is financing the no work [00:28:00] existence, the no work lifestyle of millions and millions of men in this in this group that we’ve been discussing.

One of the reasons that it’s hard for academics and policy types to wrap their heads around this in the US is because our many different disability programs across the country don’t play nice and talk to each other and share information with each other. There’s no place you can go in Washington, dc there’s no office you can walk into in Washington, DC where somebody can tell you the total number of people in the United States who are receiving one or more disability benefit from our Social Security Archipelago, from our Veterans Administration, from workman’s compensation, from the state level programs, they don’t talk to each other.

When you put this together. Try to [00:29:00] put it together. You find that well over half of the men who are neither working or looking for work are obtaining at least one of these benefits. And about two thirds, or at least two thirds are living in homes that obtain one or more of these benefits. These benefits, I do want to emphasize do not allow people to live a princely existence.

They’re pretty penurious, but they do allow an alternative to being in the workforce.

John Anderson: Yes, it’s challenging getting that balance right. I know Only two wealth and to use in two decades in public life in Australia. Another really interesting thing that you you picked up on was that for, as we’ve said, for months during the pandemic governments around the world, and I think Australia may have almost led the pack in terms of.

Relative amount of money that we’d pumped back into the economy. We were directly paying people not to work because [00:30:00] we essentially had shut our own economies down. It’s a very strange situation and there were reasons for it, but it was very unusual, very strange. But you point out that in the American context, and I’m quoting here, Washington stumbled into a dress rehearsal for the universal basic income idea, the ubi, the government.

The idea is that the government pays all citizens a minimum income regardless of work. That’s been a dream of many who fear that technology will make jobs very rare commodities. Indeed. I think we can draw some lessons there, can’t we? Out of the pandemic response that gives us into that, it can give us a glimpse into the dangers of UBI

Nicholas Eberstadt:

It seems that way to me, John. Yes, it was stumbling. It was very much fog of war. People were very frightened and they didn’t know what was going to happen from one week to the next in terms of the spread of the pandemic or the shutdown of jobs. But one of the [00:31:00] improvisations which is very familiar to Americans was this $600 a week pandemic unemployment insurance benefit which was very broadly defined.

You didn’t actually have to be unemployed to get the benefit. You could be at work and also get the benefit the income cut-off for it. Wasn’t until you got up to about a hundred thousand US dollars a year in annual income, which, even in a time of inflation is a pretty good income. At the peak we had about two and a half times as many Americans obtaining the pandemic unemployment insurance benefit as we’re actually unemployed.

So that’s why I say it was a sort of a dress rehearsal or a kind of a test drive for a [00:32:00] sort of a a U B I in the United States. Now there are people all over the world mainly in academia and in development assistance, in operations in different countries who are big enthusiasts of U B I.

I think that it’ll have many salutatory properties if people in the United States Were using their free time to do volunteering or community gardening or, I don’t know, learn mandarin or brush up on their Schopenhauer. Maybe there’d be an argument for how paying people to have more free time would be a social good.

But remember we just talked about what the men without work were doing all day long is degrading. It’s degrading to them. It’s demoralizing to them. Would we really want to use taxpayer resources to buy [00:33:00] more of that?

John Anderson: Yeah, understood. Another quote from your recent book, men Without Work, which I really jumped out at me was this, the growing incapacity of grown men to function as breadwinners cannot help but undermine the American family.

It casts those who nature designed to be strong into the role of dependence on their wives or their girlfriends, on their aging parents or on government welfare. Among those who should be most capable of shouldering the burdens of civic responsibilities, it encourages instead, sloth, idleness and vices, perhaps even more insidious.

And you go on to say that it’s subversive to the American tradition of self. To the national ethos, arguably even of our civilization. To, to what extent, Nicholas, do you think that this crisis in [00:34:00] employment is also feeding a crisis in what might be called modern masculinity? I run into young men who will openly say, I just don’t know what is expected of me as a young man anymore.

I’m confused as to who I should be and how I should behave.

Nicholas Eberstadt: John, I, again, I don’t know how things are in Australia, but if you talk to young men in the United States, not just young women as well, but young men, let’s stick with them. I don’t think there’s ever been a time in the United States when guys have been af as afraid as they are now.

They’re afraid of starting families. They’re afraid of Their own economic future. They’re afraid of having children. They’re afraid of making commitments, they’re afraid of failing. And part of what we, part of what we see, I think with [00:35:00] this crisis of work in the United States, so they’re also afraid of daring to maybe fail of, making the commitment of, making the effort to get out and get into the game.

Part of what has happened here in the US at least, and I don’t know how that is in other countries. Is that we have seen the death of the summer job in my lifetime. When I was a kid, summer jobs were a thing for boys and girls alike for teens. And when you were 15, 16, 17 years old, you’d earned some money.

You’d have some some change in your pocket. You had a little bit more independence from your parents, maybe would help with school or with getting ready for college. But it. It was empowering in all sorts of ways, including like learning about the battlefield of the, the workaday world. Nowadays in the United States, only a [00:36:00] tiny fraction of teens ever have summer jobs.

They they’re well to do. They go into enrichment programs or, the other side, they go into remedial summer programs. And the net effect of this is that most young men in the United States don’t have their first collision with paid work until they’re well into their twenties. It’s an extended period of adolescence a Peter Pan sort of existence for too many of our young men.

And no wonder no wonder in a way that this thing that you’ve never had any contact with in your life, this employment thing may seem so imposing and scary if you haven’t done it as a kid.

Population Decline

John Anderson: Can I can I pivot then to the fascinating work that you’ve been writing about population decline? Can you give us a bit of a picture of what’s happening [00:37:00] globally? I think the UN’s still saying that popular global population will peak at around 11 billion and they focus on Africa and the Middle East are still growing rapidly. But we learn on the other hand that China’s population is in free fall, and there’s a whole chunk of Western countries where population is starting to decline and will start to decline very rapidly over the next decade, much faster than they are now.

In fact, I think it may have been your term. We’re actually looking at a depopulation bomb. May or may not have been your term. Can you give us a bit of a feel for what’s happening?


Nicholas Eberstadt: Sure. As best we can tell total numbers in the world are going to be increasing for a while, but. What we have been seeing over the last three generations, over the three post-war generations is a relentless march [00:38:00] all across the world to childbearing patterns that will result in below replacement fertility, which is to say not as many kids coming up to their parents’ generation as necessary to replace that generation without immigration coming in or without some sort of co immigration compensation.

Across the world as a whole today, something like three quarters of the, of our planet’s, population lives in countries with below replacement fertility. Now we’re used to thinking of rich countries as having below replacement fertility and virtu. Almost all of them do, and almost all of them have for a while.

But since you know that the rich [00:39:00] countries only account for a very small share of the world’s population, you couldn’t get to three quarters of the world being below replacement unless mostly this is occurring in low income countries, in third world countries. And is if you spin the globe, that all of East Asia is below replacement at this point.

Most of Southeast Asia. In South Asia, India is a below replacement population. Now, Bangladesh is below replacement. Nepal is below replacement at this point, an awful lot of countries in the Middle East, in the Umma are below replacement Turkey, Iran, Morocco places you wouldn’t necessarily expect.

And then of course, when you come to the new world Mexico, Brazil [00:40:00] and a number of other Latin American countries are also below replacement societies as well as practically all of the Caribbean. So this is the wave of the future and. This has been a relentless trend. There doesn’t seem to be any end in sight.

Demographers don’t have any good theory for how low things go. What demographers do is they look in the rear view mirror. They say, oh, we know it can go this low. Now we know that, for example, last year, we know that in South Korea the population of South Korea could end up with a, on a tempo of just 0.8 births per woman per lifetime, when you need almost three times that level for a society just to have stable population.

John Anderson: This, of course is something we’re only just beginning to come to [00:41:00] grips with, and it is going to profoundly reshape the world in a whole range of ways. There are many who would say that’s a good thing, I run into, many people everywhere who think there are simply too many of us.

And that for the sake of the environment and our future living standards and for a whole lot of other things, it would, this is a very welcome trend. There are some downsides which you’ve highlighted. However there are reasons to be quite concerned about these demographic shifts.

Nicholas Eberstadt: I wasn’t one of the people who was alarmed by the population explosion of the 19th, the late 20th century.

Cause even when I was a young student looking at this, I realized what was really driving it was a health explosion. And, if you’re gonna have a population problem, I’ll take a health explosion any day. Just the improvement in life expectancy, reduction in [00:42:00] disease all of the good things that come with increased human survival.

I think that there I think there’s a lot of scope, even in a shrinking and aging world, for maintaining and improving prosperity. Given the possibilities of improved health, given the possibilities of improved education, of having a good business climate and an intelligent approach towards pragmatic free market economies and generating more knowledge.

But there definitely are consequences to population decline driven by sub replacement fertility. For one thing, the, what I was trained to think of as a population pyramid with lots of kids on the bottom and few [00:43:00] elderly people on the top. Flips over. And unless you do some very adroit things with social policy you have the risk of having a sort of a Ponzi scheme going where you have a chain letter that can never that can never do a pay as you go for supporting an elderly population.

For another thing, unless you really make lifelong learning a practice rather than a, a slogan, people occasionally spout it’s going to be very difficult to train and skill a grey labour force. But I think the really, the most the most important. Phenomenon to bear in mind when you have a, when you have generations upon generations of sub replacement [00:44:00] fertility is that you have a revolution in the family where many people in practical terms end up childless, end up not married or never married.

And the human bonds that have been our social glue more or less forever start to become undone. And this takes us into a kind of a terror incognita which gets us beyond the troubles that we can see with the headcount. Gets us into kind of the basic glue of society and questions about meaning and human existence.

John Anderson: My wife was pointing out to me the other day, she’d read something that said that once the population goes into free fall the way it is, say for example, in China today, it’s a relatively short time span before most children do not have siblings, and they don’t have aunts and uncles. To your [00:45:00] point about social glue and a sense of place in a, in the smallest community, if you like a family.

Nicholas Eberstadt: So, China is an especially acute case here because they had this monstrous government administered population control program from 1980 until 2015. The one child program now, which was Really the most ambitious, totalitarian program that I think any dictatorship has ever tried to implement it.

When Lennon said, we recognize nothing private, but before Deng Xiaoping, none of the totalitarians had tried to invade the family unit and reconstruct it this way. It looks like they succeeded and not in ways that they expected to. Since the end of that program there has been a collapse in births and in marriages in China since they ended the [00:46:00] program.

Births dropped proportionately by more in the last five years than they did during the terrible famine under Mao. Marriage is much more and I think we are we are standing on a little hill where we can see some of the future that’s coming in China. And we’re going to, we’re going to see the atrophy call it the collapse, but we’re gonna see the atrophy and the withering away of the extended family in China.

And as the extended family has been, the family is the basic social unit everywhere, but family has been absolutely indispensable in Chinese civilization because it’s been the protection for the little people against the absolute government that’s ruled them for thousands of years. And what happens next?

Where is that protection [00:47:00] going to come from? I don’t think that we can see yet.

John Anderson: There are parallels in all societies, are they not? The family unit is a place where you can retreat and deal with the problems of the world if it’s functioning properly, defend and love. Those who are bruised by their external experiences within the walls of the family confine.

And all of that is breaking down to what you’ve highlighted. The conundrum that we don’t really understand what’s driving this everywhere. There are all sorts of reasons why Chinese, young Chinese people are not now enco. They’re laughing at it seems they, that beijing’s insistence that they go forth and multiply and they’re, they’re just saying, you’re making it impossible.

We don’t want to do it. And so on and so forth. But in the West, to what extent do you think this is a sort of social contagion that that children are all very well, but one thing they are not is convenient? Have we become [00:48:00] somehow so self obsessed, so keen to define ourselves by our career? That’s an irony given that so many are opting out altogether by our standing with our peers, by our wealth that somehow or other we’re losing sight of What would you call it?

The desirability of having children, the richness that they bring that they’re seen as a burden and an inconvenience. And if you must have them there as a commodity somehow rather than something higher.

Nicholas Eberstadt: There is a great expert on all of these questions that I would defer to on any of those points named Mary Eberstadt

And unfortunately you don’t have her, you’ve got the consolation prize here, so I’ll try to stumble my way through some of this.

John Anderson: Just to make the point, of course you can find Mary’s thoughts on these things on this very channel indeed a couple [00:49:00] of months ago.

Nicholas Eberstadt: Indeed. To the extent that social scientists have been able to come up with any good Predictors for fertility levels around the world.

The best that they have managed to do is to show that the, that a predictor that the best predictor for fertility in all countries that we’ve surveyed in all times that we’ve surveyed is how many children, women say that they want. Who would’ve thought that human agency has anything to do with the number of kids that people have.

We’d know a lot more about the role of men as well, but social scientists survey women on this question. So let’s stick with that. Asking [00:50:00] why the desired number of children changes radically. Is exactly what we have to do to explain this wholesale shift in western countries to seemingly more or less permanent sub replacement fertility. And there were in the 1980s or two European demographers who came up with this idea that they called the second demographic transition.

It sounds very boring and very technical, but at the heart of it, they said the change in desired family size in Western Europe, which is what they were focusing on there, they were from Belgium, and they were fooc focusing on the Flemish at that time has to do with a new mindset and a new ideology.

They called it self actualizing. We might call it [00:51:00] autonomy. The idea that we didn’t want the The burdens and obligations of family life to get in the way of our becoming me now of self-actualization. Put it put it one way or another, but that’s pretty close to what you’re seeing all through the west.

All through the west, you’re seeing a flight from family, which is really a flight by the strong, away from the weak. Unfortunately the life cycle is pretty unforgiving. Everybody starts out pretty helpless and vulnerable and pretty much everybody ends up pretty helpless and vulnerable on the other end.

So there’s a pretty basic contradiction there that self-actualization theory can’t really help you with.

John Anderson: That’s a very powerful set of insights, Susan, that [00:52:00] it goes to the issue I suppose, that Jordan Peterson talks a lot about of responsibility. Accepting, taking on responsibility, take on what you can and be as noble as you can and step up and have a go.

But it’s the opposite of self actualization in a sense, because it involves being other person-centered. And

Nicholas Eberstadt: the and the other part of this another component of this, John, is just what one sees in rising generations who are unfamiliar with family increasingly unfamiliar with babies in their own lives, with children in their own lives.

It seems daunting and impossible to people who come from below replacement settings that they might be able to bear this responsibility for themselves. It seems frightening. There’s [00:53:00] we’re the richest we’re the richest. Generations that the world has ever seen were the most populous generations that the world has ever seen.

And yet we also seem to be the most lonely . The never se when there were fewer people in the world. There’s never so much loneliness as there is today, and I don’t think there was ever as much fear about being in families and being committed.

John Anderson: It’s an extraordinary place to have reached. Can I then pull this together with two very broad questions where you may have some thoughts?

The first goes to what this might mean globally, because the massive shifts as broadly speaking, I think it’s true to say, I think it’s 92 of the world’s countries are now in population decline. And you’ve listed some astonishing examples. Other parts of the world the population’s rising very [00:54:00] strongly.

The, that alone will lead to great shifts. The migration flows as western countries bring people in from other parts of the world who have very different cultural perspectives. For example, the migrants to Australia on most social issues are far more socially conservative than other citizens tend to be that alone points the way to differences. Sometimes, as France is seeing, they import a lot of social problems. Maybe a bit tough on France, but I think that’s a fair thing to say. They’ve got areas of Paris where the police simply don’t go that are made up of very unsettled immigrant and ethnic populations. This will lead to a very different world, a major realignment. In particular, we worry about Russia, which is in grave danger of becoming just a middle power albeit equipped with the, what the world’s largest nuclear a. That alone is very [00:55:00] worrying. The Chinese must be very aware that they’ve probably peaked, that they will be more determined than ever, to assert their muscle.

Any thoughts on what this might mean in terms of shifting global alignments and power patterns and influence?

Immigration Policy

Nicholas Eberstadt: There’s an academic industry, a small academic industry in international relations called geriatric peace. And the idea behind these studies briefly is that more elderly populations can be expected to be more risk averse.

They won’t have military commitments the way they have now because everything’s gonna be eaten up by national pension commitments and health commitments. [00:56:00] There may be something to that for some of the aging and shrinking affluent democracies. I don’t see any reason we should expect dictatorships or autocracies to become more peaceable as their populations age and shrink.

Actually, if you are if you’re in the business of running a dictatorship and that your prospects for extending power abroad may be diminishing a generation from now you might want to act more quickly. You might want to be a little bit more aggressive, more quickly. So I can actually see, I can see a good argument for the opposite that shrinking and aging societies in in realms where dictatorship’s rule may cause increasing instability in our world.

[00:57:00] More broadly speaking there’s going to be there’s going to be a. Big push for migration internationally? I think from the areas where population’s still going to be growing very rapidly, that’s mainly sub-Sahara. You can make the argument that there’ll be a big demand for caregivers and others and some of the rich shrinking societies.

Trick there is going to be how well the rich receiving countries are capable of assimilating the newcomers into being loyal and productive members of their society. The United States, as we don’t have an immigration policy. We’re in complete chaos. We can’t help, but we can’t help but attract motivated people to our shores for some reason.

I know that Australia’s got a much more pragmatic and effective [00:58:00] immigration policy and in Australia. From what little I know, it seems that you have the sort of the secret sauce, which helps which helps make newcomers into loyal and productive citizens. Continental Europe hasn’t done nearly as well as your country or mine in bringing its newcomers into integrate integrate into society.

In many of these countries many of the continental countries that work rates and labor force participation rates are actually lower for the newcomers than for the for the native born. The idea that they were going to be bringing in newcomers to help them with their postponed, the crisis of the welfare state worked exactly the wrong way around in some of those cases.

So I don’t know what it is in Europe that is preventing some of these [00:59:00] countries from doing better with with making immigration as success. Unfortunately, there’s almost nothing you can read about this to, if you wanted to make things work better because the subject is so politically sensitive.

It is so incorrect that people don’t write about it and they don’t talk about it. So they can’t even build any learning about this.

John Anderson: That’s concerning, I have to say. But, Come right home then to a major issue for the globe today. There’s no other way of putting it. That’s your country. I remember when he was Prime Minister of Great Britain, Tony Blair making the observation in a speech to our federal parliament that sometimes our American cousins may seem a little unusual to us and even irritating, but there is no problem in the world today that cannot be resolved without the [01:00:00] involvement and engagement of the American people.

And I thought it was a very interesting observation to make. We’re very conscious of that in Australia today, as we see the arc of autocracy starting to look really quite threatening. We we hope and we assume and we trust that the Americans will be there as something goes wrong. That’s a pretty common view around the world.

So if I can be so crude, there are times when people love to hate the Americans until it goes wrong, and then they expect you to be there. that is reality. And sometimes I think people behave quite badly in not appreciating the force for good that America has been since the Second World War in insisting on a rules-based international order and being prepared to defend them.

But that brings you back to the American people and the division that you’ve touched on that the rest of the world talks about. America seems, absolutely divided as I look at it, I have to say, at least there are people putting up a fight [01:01:00] for common sense and for thoughtfulness and for reason.

But the question more broadly is where do you think America might go? You finish your piece on demographic decline with an interesting reflection on American history. You you wrote our amazingly resilient society’s been revitalized more than once before, and not by governments. Spontaneous, intellectually and spiritually disruptive ferment from within civil society might offer a homegrown American answer.

And you mentioned in this context America’s history of great religious revivals or great awakenings. There have been the times when we’ve seen America or wake out of a great slumber isolationism during the 1930s. Ironically, the foundation stone for the American Embassy in Canberra was laid in a ceremony the night before Pearl Harbor.

No kidding. As a little reflection on the way [01:02:00] through America has at times amazed probably even itself with it’s rise to greatness, with it’s turning around. So as we watch all of this ferment, is it too much to hope? that America can pull together again, because surely there is no material or factual reason why America has to go into decline in terms of the intelligence and capability of its people.

Its resources, its system of government. It boils down to where individuals, I think individual Americans choose to take their country. And who wins in the culture war, who loses?

Nicholas Eberstadt: I’m very optimistic about the American future. I think we’ve got a, I think we’ve got a formula that has worked extraordinarily well for almost a quarter of a millennium.

And I don’t think there’s anything that has [01:03:00] invalidated that basic formula. With respect to the future. We’ve lived through a very bad patch. It’s, and it’s quite ironic. This bad patch began at the end of the Cold War when the United States became more powerful in relative and absolute terms than any empire or any golden hde had ever been before on the, the face of the planet.

And we’ve had I think we’ve had an un unfortunate measure of fecklessness during the sort of the sleepwalking time where we, many of us have taken a sort of a holiday from history. That’s also been true in some of our domestic politics as well, but, That will pass. And I think that we will see more familiar more familiar [01:04:00] glimpses of us behavior as some of our some of our options fall away there.

Exactly the way you were saying that you can count on Americans to do the right thing, as Churchill said, after they’ve exhausted all other options. We may be exhausting some of those options right now. And the history that you mentioned of religious awakenings as we call it in our country, I think is also quite relevant here.

We’re not going to be going on a linear trend in this kind of trajectory of anami that we see at the moment. This will come to an end and I think that I think that good things will lie ahead.

John Anderson: Thank you. Just as I was concerned, you might confirm my fear that a cornered Russia or a China perceiving that it’s peaked might be more [01:05:00] dangerous than countries that have a stronger belief in their future.

I was concerned you might say that because I think frankly that is my own view but I am equally more, in fact, more so delighted that you hold that optimism. I’m a great admirer of the best of the American tradition and. I guess I’d say the world does need a functioning and cohesive America.

As one of my guests once said there will be a global cop, and you want the cop to be a good one, . So from this Australian, thank you for your time and your insights. I’ve been invaluable and I’ve enjoyed it immensely. And here’s to America finding great national unity and global purpose again.

Nicholas Eberstadt: Amen. John, it’s a delight talking with you. Thank you for inviting me. Thank you.[01:06:00] 

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