Boomer Century

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Beginning in 1942 with so-called furlough babies, taking off in May 1946—nine months after V-J Day—and peaking around 1947 or 1948, when an American child was born every eight seconds, the GI generation broke sharply with a century-long demographic trend toward smaller families. The population boom also hit Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, whose economies enjoyed a postwar expansion similar to (though not on scale with) America’s, but not Europe, large portions of which lay in ruins. Little wonder, then, that a British visitor traveling in the United States in 1958 observed with something like amazement that “every other young housewife I see is pregnant.”

Though its causes continue to puzzle scholars, the baby boom probably grew from three distinct trends.

First, in the prosperous 1940s and 1950s, thirtyish Americans who had postponed marriage and children during the Great Depression were eager to make up for lost time and start building families. They crowded the field 10 years after they would normally have contributed their share of progeny to the national population.

Second, they were joined by a younger cohort, including many recently demobilized GIs who had come home to find economic prosperity, generous government assistance in the form of housing and educational benefits for veterans, and a general sense of optimism born of conquering global fascism. For these young victors, many still in their early twenties, it made little sense to put off marriage and family. Like their older brothers and sisters, they understood that the years of Depression scarcity and wartime sacrifice were over.

Finally, and in a more subtle way, the general euphoria that drove up marriage and birth rates was soon complemented by Cold War–era anxieties over nuclear competition. In an uncertain world, the comforts of home and hearth could provide a salve against atomic angst, just as the stabilizing influence of marriage and parenthood offered a strategic advantage in the nation’s struggle against communism.

Noting the dangers posed by the Cold War, two Harvard sociologists informed the Ford Foundation that the “world is like a volcano that breaks out repeatedly… . The world approaches this critical period with a grave disruption of the family system… . The new age demands a stronger, more resolute and better equipped individual… . To produce such persons will demand a reorganization of the present family system and the building of one that is stronger emotionally and morally.” Ultimately, if Americans wanted to do their part in this new global war, they’d settle down, have lots of kids, and raise them to do well in school and well in life.

Even household architecture seemed to reinforce the relationship between Cold War worries and the cult of domesticity in which the baby boom prospered. The standard suburban ranch house favored by many young families in the 1950s was set back from the street and protected by a fence, and it had a low-slung roof and an attached carport, lending it a bit of the appearance of a well-fortified bunker.

Not just homes, but the children who were starting to crawl through them, formed a “defense—an impregnable bulwark” against the horrors of the atomic age, the social commentator Louisa Randall Church argued in 1946. Many Americans seemed to agree, and out of this vague combination of economic optimism and atomic unease, they were fruitful, and they multiplied.

Relatively speaking, to grow up a middle-class American child in the 1950s meant wanting for nothing.

Their children—the boomers—were necessarily a heterogeneous lot. America still suffered from deep racial and economic divisions. A country as large as the United States contained a host of distinctive regional folkways. Still, as the cultural critic Annie Gottlieb has observed, for all their differences, the baby boomers formed a distinctive “tribe with its roots in time, rather than place or race.” By any measure, the America in which they grew up was more abundant, more powerful, and more enraptured with its own glory than ever before. When John F. Kennedy called on his countrymen to “explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce,” he echoed the optimism that helped forge the new generation’s outlook.

Part of this confidence grew out of America’s total victory in World War II and the country’s scientific and medical achievements, including Jonas Salk’s discovery of a polio vaccine in the early 1950s. But most of it was due to the nation’s dynamic economy. Between 1940 and 1960 our gross national product doubled; real wages—and real purchasing power—increased by 30 percent; the portion of owner-occupied homes climbed to 61 percent; four-fifths of American families kept at least one car in the driveway; average life expectancy rose by almost 11 percent; most employees of large firms enjoyed such new benefits as private health insurance, paid vacations, and retirement pensions; and the typical American house held seven times more gadgets and goods than in the 1920s. By 1957 the energy of the American economy led U.S. News & World Report to declare that “never had so many people, anywhere, been so well off.” When Richard Nixon famously sparred with Nikita Khrushchev at the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow and proclaimed the superiority of the American suburban kitchen, with its sleek electric appliances in their myriad styles and models, he articulated a vague but popular sense that America’s consumer abundance was a sure sign of its Cold War advantage.