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The Baby Boom

Overview

  • Following World War II, the United States experienced an increased birth rate between 1946 and 1964 called the “baby boom.”
  • This generation of "baby boomers" was the result of a strong postwar economy. Boomers also influenced the economy as a core marketing demographic for products tied to their age group, from toys to records.
  • Constituting as much as 40% of the American population, baby boomers exerted a strong pull on American culture at large, particularly during the social movements of the 1960s.
  • Most boomers are now at or near retirement, prompting concerns for how American society will cope with an aging population.

The baby boom

Like many industrialized Western nations, in the early twentieth century the United States experienced a gradual decline in its birthrate. As more Americans moved off the farm and into the city, large families were a burden to support. During the Great Depression, the American birthrate fell to its lowest point yet.

The American birth rate skyrocketed following World War II. A combination of factors produced this baby boom: soldiers returning home from the war wanted to settle down into family life, and GI Bill benefits promised the decent pay, access to good jobs, and affordable housing that made raising a family possible.

Babies, babies, and more babies

After the war, returning soldiers rushed to get married. This growth in marriages led to a record number of babies. The baby boom was first felt as early as 1942, when the historically low birth rates of the Great Depression began to shift with the birth of "furlough babies" during World War II. Nine months after the war's end, the boom began in full force. 20% more babies were born in 1946 than in 1945.

The baby boom continued for 18 years. On average, 4.24 million babies were born per year between 1946 and 1964, when birth rates finally began to decline again. In 1964, the 76.4 million babies born throughout the baby boom generation constituted 40% of the US population, which was then about 192 million.

Postwar domesticity and its economic benefits

Why did the birth rate rise so suddenly and remain elevated for so long? The World War II generation was the most marriage- and family-oriented in US history: 96.4% of women and 94.1% of men in this group got married and had more children, sooner after marriage and spaced closer together, than earlier generations.

Historians have suggested a number of possible reasons for this increased family size after the war, from government propaganda to a yearning for the security offered by "normal" family life during an era when fear of the atomic bomb pervaded society. One thing is certain: these high fertility rates closely correlate with a period of unprecedented economic prosperity, as well as optimism that the prosperity would last. Americans finally could afford to have a lot of children, so they did.

The baby boom was both a result of the healthy economy and also a major contributor to it. An enormous generation of babies became an enormous generation of children, teenagers, young adults, adults, and (more recently) seniors. As the baby boomers aged, manufacturers and advertisers targeted this demographic. As babies, the boomers invigorated the market for toys, candy, and washing machines. As children, their growth drove the construction of new schools and suburbs. As teenagers, they dominated the popular culture of the 1950s and 1960s, buying clothing and records.

Significance of the baby boom

The generation born in the twenty years following World War II has been a defining force in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s, the boomers were on the forefront of social change, including the later stages of the Civil Rights Movement, the protest against the Vietnam War, and the second wave of the feminist movement.

As the baby boomers age, the ratio of retired Americans compared to working Americans will increase significantly, placing considerable strain on Social Security, hospitals, and other government agencies designed to aid the elderly.


Source: The Baby Boom
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