Baby Boomers

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Baby boomers are all those born in the United States between 1946 and 1964. As illustrated in Figure 1, in the postWorld War II period the General Fertility Rate (GFR) in the United States rose from what had been an all-time low in 1936 of 75.8 children per 1,000 women of childbearing age to a high of 122.7 in 1957and then fell to a new all-time low of 65.0 in 1976. All races, religions, and ethnic groups participated in the boom. Total births per year during that period grew from 2.3 million to 4.3 million and then fell to 3.2 million. The baby boom is defined as having occurred during the peak years of this roller coaster ride: its legacy was a population bulge destined to leave its imprint on each phase of the life cycle. That imprint included the creation of an "echo boom" of births during the 1980s and 1990s.

Because the baby boom lasted nearly twenty years, many have objected to treating the baby boomers as a single cohort, associating younger baby boomers more with "Generation X" than with older baby boomersbut the original appellation has held through the years, and tends still to refer to the entire population bulge produced during the boom.

Similar baby booms occurred during the same period in many other western industrialized nations, with peak fertility rates in Canada, New Zealand, and Iceland even higher than those in the United States. However, the term "baby boomer" has tended to be used most commonly in reference to those born in the United Statesand they are the focus of this entry. Figure 2 compares the baby booms in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, and Iceland, nations that experienced the most pronounced and prolonged booms.

There are approximately seventy-nine million baby boomers in the United States at the beginning of the twenty-first century: about 29 percent of the total population. (The population estimates and medium projections are taken from the 2000 U.S. Census.) Following the boom in 1965, 38 percent of the total population were baby boomers, but by 2050 their share is projected to drop to only 5 percent, with eighteen million surviving at age eighty-five or older in that year. As they retire their numbers will grow relative to the size of the working-age population, until in 2030 there will be three retired baby boomers for every ten workers (and about four retirees in total for every ten workersa ratio projected to remain fairly constant thereafter). Nevertheless, despite their declining share in total population, they do and will remain a characteristic bulge in the age structure throughout their lifetime.

What caused the baby boom?

There is no consensus regarding the cause of the baby boom: social scientists suggest a complex mixture of economic, social, and psychological factors. The majority of it occurred not through an increase in family size but rather through a sharp decline in the proportion of women choosing to remain childless (Westoff). For many older women these were births postponed during the Depression and World War II. They account for most of the immediate 1946 1947 "spike" in births associated with returning troops at the end of the war. But in addition younger women departed from a historic upward trend in female labor force participation in order to stay home and start familiesa departure that lasted for nearly twenty years. Exhilaration and optimism after the war seemed to combine with a general feeling of affluence in a booming postwar economy, and generous provisions for returning GIs, to make young couples feel able and willing to support children (Bean; Jones).

But this apparently positive relationship between income and fertility fails to explain why fertility rates then suddenly plummeted in the early 1960s, causing the "baby bust." There was a tendency at the time to attribute the decline to the introduction of the birth control pill in 1963but it is generally acknowledged now that the pill merely facilitated a trend that originated several years earlier, in the late 1950s. Economists have attempted to develop a "unified theory" to explain both the boom and bust. Their focus has been primarily on three factors: male income, the female wage, and material aspirations (desired standard of living). They assume that fertility will tend to rise as male income rises, but fall when material aspirations increase and when female wages rise. The female wage is assumed to represent the value of time foregone in the labor market in favor of childbearing: the "opportunity cost" or "price" of women's time spent in caring for children and hence a significant element in the cost of raising children.

One school of economic thought suggests that the baby boom in the 1950s was caused by rising male incomes and falling women's wages (as women were displaced from wartime jobs), while in the later decades falling male income and rising female wages generated the baby bust (Butz and Ward). Unfortunately data needed to test this hypothesis fully are not available for the complete boomand bustperiod although the data that are available suggest that these two factors account for only a portion of the baby boom (and bust).

However, adding the third factormaterial aspirationsprovides a more complete explanation for the phenomenon. This third factor has been the focus of another school of thought among economists, which assumes that shifts over time in the desired standard of living temper young adults' responses to intergenerational changes in income. That is, it is assumed that young adults will feel affluent only if their incomeregardless of its absolute levelallows them to meet or exceed their material aspirations, which are assumed to be in large part a function of the standard of living they experienced while growing up (Easterlin). And a couple's ability to achieve a given standard of living is affected by the size of their birth cohort relative to that of their parents. An excess supply of younger, less-experienced workers depresses their wages relative to older workers, and excess demand produces the opposite result (Welch; Macunovich, 1999). Since those older workers are the parents of the young adults, and are assumed to affect their children's desired standard of living, it is assumed that large cohorts will have a difficult time achieving their material aspirationsand conversely small cohorts will be favored.

This economic approach assumes that the fertility cycle experienced between 1936 and 1976 was one of the demographic adjustments young adults made in response to "relative cohort size"induced changes in "relative income." It suggests that the small cohorts born during the Depression entered the labor market in the 1950s with relatively low material aspirations and found themselves favored not only by the strong economy but also by their small relative cohort size. Their high relative income generated the baby boom, but when the boomers themselves entered the labor market in the 1970s and 1980s their experience was diametrically opposed to that of their parents: high material aspirations coming out of their parents' homes, but low earnings relative to those expectations thanks to their large cohort size. The boomers' fertility rates plummeted as they scrambled to maintain their desired standard of living (Macunovich, 1998).

The boomer lifestyle

Low fertility is not the only characteristic that differentiates the baby boomers from their parents' cohort. Female labor force participation soared among the boomers, and young women began moving into previously male-dominated professions, while marriage rates declined precipitously and cohabitation and divorce rates increased dramatically. Age-specific crime rates and drug use among young males soared as baby boomers passed through the fifteen to twenty-four age group. Some social scientists believe that these changes were demographic adjustments made primarily in response to low relative income. And although average male earnings fell for baby boomersespecially in relative terms the term yuppie (young urban professional) was coined to describe the high-consumption, lowsavings lifestyle of many boomers.

The baby boomers were the first generation of children and teenagers with significant spending power, and that, combined with their numbers, fueled the growth of massive marketing campaigns and the introduction of new productsand new terminology, such as "pop group" and "hippie"targeted at the boomers' current stage in the life cycle. Fashion followed the boomers' needsfrom the mini-skirt and bellbottoms to "relaxed fit" jeans. Even fringe commercial enterprises benefitted, as, for example, the nation began wearing army surplus clothing, and drug use spread, some say as a result of the boomers' heavy participation in the Vietnam War. (At the war's peak during the 19681970 period, 31 percent of boomer males twenty to twenty-one years old were serving in the military.)

Overcrowded schools introduced "porta-cabin" classrooms and half-day sessions when the boomers were young, and later the day-care industry emerged to accommodate boomers who chose to combine career and parenthood. The country's identity seemed shaped by the boomers, from the "youth culture" in the 1960s and 1970s to the "greying of America" in the early twenty-first century. The evolution of the automobile provides a prime example of the boomers' life-cycle impact. Station wagons became the vogue in the 1950s in response to the needs of boomers' parents. Those vehicles mutated into minivans to accommodate "yuppie" boomers in their thirties and forties and then into sport utility vehicles for boomers who had become so-called empty nesters, many going through "midlife crisis." The next stage in this progression is a car/van that accommodates devices for the disabled, in anticipation of baby boomers in old age.

Boomers in retirement

But despite the tendency for the entire culture to take on the boomers' current persona as it evolves through the life cycle, the boomers are in reality an extremely diverse group. Income inequality is high among the baby boomers: one study suggests that inequality among the boomers is nearly 15 percent greater than it was among their parents at the same age (Easterlin et al.). In the mid-1990s median income in white boomer families was nearly twice that of black boomer families, while the poverty rate among black and Hispanic boomers was more than double that of whites (Levy). "Leading edge" boomers (those born during the first half of the boom) have fared better economically than their younger counterparts. Boomers who served in Vietnam have never been able to close the wage gap with their more fortunate counterparts who stayed at home (Angrist). Half of full-time private wage and salary workers among the baby boomers were not covered by private pensions and nearly half of baby boomers did not own homes as they progressed through middle age (Kingston).

Approximately eighteen million baby boomers are members of racial minorities. As a result, the Census Bureau projects that while 87 percent of the elderly population in 1990 were white non-Hispanic, this proportion will drop to 76 percent in 2030 and to 70 percent in 2050. Some suggest that because members of minority groups work disproportionately in "physically arduous and partially disabling working conditions," they may be disproportionately affected by increases in the early retirement age (Kingston; Lee and Skinner).

Over one-tenth of baby boomers are high school dropouts, including 4 percent with less than a ninth-grade education. Baby boomers' median household income at the start of the 1990s, after adjusting for inflation, was less than that of a similar household in their parents' generation. Similarly, the proportion of baby boomers heading single-parent households has tripled relative to their parents at the same age. Ninety percent of those households were reported to have less wealth than income, and income levels only one-third the size of that for married couples with children (Kingston).

Those thought to be at the greatest risk with regard to retirement prospects are singles especially single mothers, and more than one-tenth of female baby boomers head their own households and those with lower levels of education, those with nonstable employment patterns, non-homeowners, and the youngest of the baby boomers.

In general, analysts tend to agree that boomers will on average exceed their parents' standard of living in retirementand will do so by a substantial marginalthough some suggest that replacement rates (the ratio of retirement to pre-retirement income) may fall (Easterlin; Congressional Budget Office; Employment Benefit and Research Institute; House Ways and Means Committee). They have, on average, exceeded their parents' standard of living at all points in the life cycle to date by 50 to 60 percent and more on a per capita basis. However, there is some disagreement on this topic, based on analyses that focus solely on male earnings and family or household income, rather than on per capita income (Levy and Michel).

In addition, some have emphasized the effects of the demographic adjustments made by the boomers to raise per capita incomes (delayed/ foregone marriage, reduced fertility, and increased divorce). It is suggested that the boomers in retirement are less likely than their parents to be living with a spouse, and are likely to have fewer adult children. As a result, although economic well-being may be relatively high for the average baby boomer in retirement, total wellbeing may suffer (Easterlin et al.).

Analysts disagree about the adequacy of boomers' savings for retirement. Some project that 50 percent more retired boomers than nonboomers will receive income from private pensions, with nearly three-quarters of boomers receiving some pension money and the average boomer receiving nearly two-fifths of retirement income from pensionssome 60 percent more than is received by non-boomers (Andrews and Chollet). However, many have voiced concern about the boomers' savings; and in this case the younger boomers seem to be doing better than the older boomers. The median ratio of wealth to income for younger boomers has risen about two-thirds relative to that of their parents, but for older boomers the ratio has remained relatively constant. And while their parents' savings benefitted from windfall gains later in life, it has been suggested that the boomer ratio of wealth to income will fall as retirees age, because of lack of protection against inflation in private pension plans. In addition, some feel that many baby boomers' plans are subject to high levels of risk, and that many baby boomers are underestimating their longevity in saving for their retirement (House Ways and Means Committee).

It has been projected, based on the current system, that Social Security will provide 60 to 70 percent of retirement income for boomers in the bottom half of the income distribution in 2019. For most baby boomers, retirement incomes will be well above those of today's retirees (50 to 60 percent higher), and will be more than adequate, but the projections indicate that the proportion of elderly baby boomers who will be poor or near-poor may reach almost 20 percent, with the majority of these being singles, and especially single women (House Ways and Means Committee).

However, some have questioned the reliability of the more optimistic forecasts, due to what they see as significant effects of the baby boom on the economy itselfin areas such as the housing market and stock market, interest rates, savings, and inflation rates (Fair and Dominguez). Based on these historic effects some suggest a potential "asset meltdown" when retiring baby boomers cash in their holdings, a view that remains highly controversial.

Diane J. Macunovich

See also Cohort Change; Population Aging.


Andrews, E. S., and Chollet, D. "Future Sources of Retirement Income: Whither the Baby Boom." In Social Security and Private Pensions. Edited by Susan M. Wachter. Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1988.

Angrist, J. D. "Lifetime Earnings and the Vietnam Era Draft Lottery: Evidence from Social Security Administrative Records." The American Economic Review 80, no. 3 (1990): 313.

Bean, F. "The Baby Boom and Its Explanations." The Sociological Quarterly 24 (Summer 1983): 353365.

Butz, W. P., and Ward, M. P. "The Emergence of Countercyclical U.S. Fertility." American Economic Review 69, no. 3 (1979): 318328.

Coleman, D. Zip files of total and age-specific fertility rates. Available as part of the Oxford Population Project at 1999.

Congressional Budget Office. "Baby Boomers in Retirement: An Early Perspective." Washington, D.C.: Congressional Budget Office, September, 1993.

Easterlin, R. A. Birth and Fortune. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Easterlin, R. A.; Schaeffer, C. M.; and Macunovich, D. J. "Will the Baby Boomers be Less Well Off than their Parents? Income, Wealth and Family Circumstances Over the Life Cycle in the United States." Population and Development Review 19, no. 3 (1993): 497522.

Employment Benefit Research Institute. "Baby Boomers in Retirement: What Are Their Prospects?" EBRI Special Report SR-23. Washington D.C.: Employment Benefit Research Institute (July 1994).

Fair, R. C., and Dominguez, K. M. "Effects of Changing U.S. Age Distribution on Macroeconomic Equations." American Economic Review 81, no. 5 (1991): 12761294.

House Ways and Means Committee. "Retirement Income for an Aging Population." U.S. House of Representatives, Ways and Means Committee Paper No. 100-22 (27 August 1987).

Jones, L. Y. Great Expectations: America and the Baby Boom Generation. New York: Ballantine Books, 1981.

Kingson, E. "The Diversity of the Baby Boom Generation: Implications for the Retirement Years." Prepared for Forecasting and Environmental Scanning Department, American Association of Retired Persons, April 1992.

Lee, R. D., and Skinner, J. "Assessing Forecasts of Mortality, Health Status, and Health Costs During Baby Boomers' Retirement." Presented at a conference on Retirement Income Modeling, September 1994. Washington D.C.: National Academy of Science, 1994.

Levy, F. The New Dollars and Dreams: American Incomes and Economic Change. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1998.

Levy, F., and Michel, R. C. The Economic Future of American Families. Washington, D.C.: The Urban Institute Press, 1991.

Macunovich, D. J. "Fertility and the Easterlin Hypothesis: An Assessment of the Literature." Journal of Population Economics 11 (1998): 53111.

Macunovich, D. J. "The Fortunes of One's Birth: Relative Cohort Size and the Youth Labor Market in the U.S." Journal of Population Economics 12, no. 2 (1999): 215272.

Macunovich, D. J. "Baby Booms and Busts in the Twentieth Century." In International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Edited by Neil J. Smelser and Paul B. Baltes. Oxford: Pergamon Press. Forthcoming, 2002a.

Macunovich, D. J. Birth Quake: The Baby Boom and Its Aftershocks. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Forthcoming, 2002b.

Pampel, F. C., and Peters, E. H. "The Easterlin Effect." Annual Review of Sociology 21 (1995): 163.

Schieber, S. J., and Shoven, J. B. "The Consequences of Population Aging on Private Pension Fund Saving and Asset Markets." Working Paper No. 4665. National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, Mass.: (March 1994).

U.S. Census Bureau. "Population Estimates by Single Year of Age." For the year 2000 Census. Available on the Internet at

U.S. Census Bureau. "Population Projections by Single Year of Age." For the year 2000 Census. Available on the Internet at

Welch, F. "Effects of Cohort Size on Earnings: The Baby Boom Babies' Financial Bust." Journal of Political Economy 87 (1979): S65S97. Westoff, C. F. "Some Speculations on the Future of Marriage and Fertility." Family Planning Perspectives 10, no. 2 (1978): 80.

Baby Boom Generation

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Baby Boom Generation

Born between 1946 and 1964, the baby boomers represent the largest generational birth cohort in U.S. historynearly 76.5 million in total. Following World War II, a fertility surge coincided with rapid economic expansion. Government, industry, and society all fueled the boom. Governmental policies encouraged particular models of suburban family life, from expanded veterans' benefits and easy housing loans to the replacement of many women in wartime jobs with men in peacetime employment. From 1950 to 1970, the suburban population doubled, from 36 to 72 million, becoming the largest single sector of the nation's population. Though suburbanization was a predominantly white, middle-class phenomenon, the boom crossed nearly all categories of race, class, ethnicity, and religion. Liberalized immigration policies also contributed to increases in the birthrate, especially for Mexican and Chinese people in the United States, throughout the late 1940s and 1950s.

The Early Boomers

As Cold War anticommunism and pro-corporatism merged with the suburban ideal, the nuclear family became charged with symbolic and practical meanings for the health of the individual, community, and nation. Those who did not fit into the ideal suburban, middle-class, married, white family structure faced stigmatization. Black female household heads were frequently held accountable for their own poverty, and their children were marginalized. Such attitudes made it possible to formally and informally deny young, poor women of color access to a variety of health and social services throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

Community displacement due to wartime and postwar mobility and suburbanization decreased the role of extended family networks in providing parenting advice and support. In an age of technological innovation, parents turned to experts such as Dr. Benjamin Spock, who encouraged positive reinforcement and full-time parental devotion to affectionate child-raising. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, critics grew concerned with the potential lack of limits that could result from what scholar Richard Hofstadter called "the overvalued child."

Boomer childhoods were filled with vast institutional, social, and media attention. During the 1950s and early 1960s, elementary schools could not be built fast enough to keep up with demand, and membership in Little League and the Boy and Girl Scouts exploded. Churches enjoyed a rise in membership from 64.5 million in 1940 to 114.5 million in 1960 and especially in the suburbs churches developed recreational and youth programs.

The media quickly recognized the potential to reach the boomer child market via the new phenomenon of television. The growth of children's programming, such as The Mickey Mouse Club, which began in 1955, allowed direct toy advertising to children, cutting parents and educators out of the loop. Toys also shifted from parent-directed play to advertiser-led consumption. Barbie, for example, introduced in 1959, just as older boomers headed into adolescence, modeled a teenage lifestyle of carefree consumerism rather than an idealization of motherhood or family.

In their teens, boomers continued to transform institutions and culture. High school enrollment rose due to boththe sheer quantity of teenagers and an increasing pressure to keep all teenagers in school through graduation. Perhaps most significantly, boomers experienced the rewards and strains of school integration, which gradually followed Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Questions of racial integration and equality were concerns for most young people. Little practical change occurred until the decade after the Civil Rights Act (1964-1968), when 75 percent of African-American students still attended segregated schools. For later boomers, experiences of mandatory integration through the busing of students to various districts were common. By 1976, only 17 percent of black students still attended formally segregated schools.

Youth dating culture changed significantly throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In the early postwar years, the previous system of dating many different people was replaced by the ideal of "going steady" with a single partner. Premarital intercourse became more common, although long after the advent of the birth control pill in 1960, and even the legalization of abortion with Roe v. Wade in 1973, young people tended to be critical of "going all the way," or having sexual intercourse.

Like their parents, boomer teens eagerly embraced consumerism as a means of personal fulfillment, although they rejected the corollary of familial security. Marketing expanded to meet their desires for "self-expression," with everything from mod clothes to rock music. By the late 1960s, anti-materialist youth aesthetics were conjoined with teens who had higher disposable incomes and greater recreational expenditures than any previous generation. As such, the combination of consumerism and the linked belief in the therapeutic self came to define the baby boom generation. Together, they fueled young people's insistence on free expression, from boys wearing long hair in high school to the purchasing of "alternative" clothing, rock music, and drugs, to protesting against the Vietnam-era military draft.

Protest they did. In the late 1960s, high school students fought for a say on dress code regulations, textbook selection, and club management, engaging in sit-ins and publishing underground newspapers. They received validation from the more extensive and radical boomer college battles about free speech, the war, civil rights, and women's issues. They also found support in such institutional high places as the U.S. Supreme Court, which, in Tinker v. Des Moines in 1969, ruled that high school students had a right to free speech. Young people also found inspiration in a countercultural movement for personal liberation that was geared toward universal love and a rejection of such mainstream values as monogamy and careerism.

While the way for part-time, discretionary-fund teen employment was paved by the rise of suburban shopping malls and fast-food restaurants, nonwhite and lower-income teens, especially young men in inner cities, needed jobs. For them, opportunities to work became scarcer throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Young people participated in a wave of urban uprisings throughout the mid-to late-1960s. They also organized to attack systems that failed to address their needs. In March 1968, for example, Chicano and Chicana youth organized a boycott of five East Los Angeles high schools to protest overcrowding, discriminatory practices, and related high drop-out levels.

The Late Boomers

Unlike early boomers, who were born between 1946 and 1955 and were collectively named Time 's Man of the Year in 1967, late boomers (born 1956 through 1964) were in many ways the generation's forgotten members. American society was less invested in raising them as "ideal" children than it was in simply managing them. Many youth-related institutions were prepared to accommodate them. To further facilitate the gradual transition from childhood to adolescence, the 1970s saw the rise of the middle school. In 1966, only 499 existed, but by 1980 there were over 6,000.

Teenagers in the 1970s, in large part, retreated from political activity into a consumer-based exploration of peer-based belonging. Recreational drug use rose dramatically, and due in part to the women's movement and sexual liberation, teens experienced a gradual shifting away from formalized steady courtship toward heterosexual group socializing with more informal dating and sexual relations. Nevertheless, for some late boomers the 1970s were a time of involvement within the growing movements for people of color, women, gay people, and the environment.

Baby boomers redefined the meanings of childhood and youth in the United States. Youth culture and institutions will continue to feel their presence for decades to come.

See also: Campus Revolts in the 1960s; Drugs; Twenty-Sixth Amendment; Rock and Roll; Youth Activism.


Bailey, Beth L. 1988. From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth-Century America. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Chafe, William H. 1981. Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina, and the Black Struggle for Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press.

Chávez, Ernesto. 1998. "'The Birth of a New Symbol': The Brown Berets' Gendered Chicano National Imaginary." In Generations of Youth: Youth Cultures and History in Twentieth-Century America, ed. Joe Austin and Michael Nevin Willard. New York: New York University Press.

Echols, Alice. 1989. Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967-1975. Minneapolis: University of Minnosota Press.

Gutiérrez, David G. 1995. Walls and Mirrors: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the Politics of Ethnicity. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Jackson, Kenneth T. 1985. Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press.

Jones, Jacqueline. 1986. Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow. New York: Vintage Books.

Jones, Landon Y. 1980. Great Expectations: America and the Baby Boom Generation. New York: Coward, McCann and Geoghegan.

May, Elaine Tyler. 1988. Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. New York: Basic Books.

Miller, James. 1994. "Democracy Is in the Streets": From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago, 2nd ed. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press.

Palladino, Grace. 1996. Teenagers: An American History. New York: Basic Books.

Solinger, Rickie. 1992. Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race Before Roe v. Wade. New York: Routledge.

Sugrue, Thomas J. 1996. The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Don Romesburg

Baby Boom

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Baby Boom

When World War II (1939–45) ended, Americans had endured fifteen years of economic depression and war. Lacking money during the Great Depression (1929–41; see entry under 1930s— The Way We Lived in volume 2) and unsure of the future during the war, many young couples put off having families during these years. With the war over and economic prosperity restored, they no longer had to wait. By 1946, the "baby boom" was on, with more babies being born than ever before. Because of their numbers, baby boomers, those people born between 1946 and 1964 (when the birth rate leveled off), are a generation that has had a great impact on American life and culture.

Between 1946 and 1964, seventy-eight million babies were born in the United States alone. As these children grew up, their numbers created unique problems. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, nurses, doctors, and hospitals struggled to deal with overcrowding as so many women gave birth. In the 1950s, as these kids reached school age, suddenly there were not enough school classrooms and teachers to meet the demand. In the 1960s and early 1970s, these children created the same problems for college and universities. After college, all these students wanted jobs, putting pressure on the job market. When baby boomers begin to retire around 2010, many worry that services for the elderly—namely health care and Social Security—will not be able to meet the demand. At every stage of their lives, the baby-boom generation has created unique problems because of its size.

When the baby boomers were young, their numbers could also create opportunities. All these new kids needed things—diapers and toys at first, school buildings and clothes, records and cars later, and all kinds of products that created a booming economy. For twenty-five years after World War II, the United States enjoyed great economic prosperity. Many baby boomers grew up in material comfort, much more so than their parents who had suffered through the Depression and World War II.

The baby boom created great demand for housing, which helped create the many new suburban communities that sprung up after 1945. The baby boomers spurred the growth of what is called "consumer culture" and especially "youth culture." Because many baby boomers were economically comfortable as they grew up, they had money to spend on luxuries. They bought lots of records and so helped make rock and roll (see entry under 1950s—Music in volume 3) music popular in the mid-1950s and after. They went to the movies, so movies were made about them, most famously Rebel Without a Cause (1955), starring James Dean (see entry under 1950s—Film and Theater in volume 3), about a troubled teenager bored with life. Books such as The Catcher in the Rye (1951; see entry under 1950s— Print Culture in volume 3) by J. D. Salinger (1919–) captured this teenage anxiety as well. They were also the first generation to grow up with television (see entry under 1940s—TV and Radio in volume 3), and TV catered to their needs and experiences. Later, many baby boomers grew bored with the comfortable middle-class lives many of them led. In the 1960s, they experimented with drugs, Eastern religions, and alternative lifestyles. The hippie (see entry under 1960s—The Way We Lived in volume 4) counterculture was most famously displayed at the Woodstock (see entry under 1960s—Music in volume 4) Music Festival in 1969.

The boredom many baby boomers felt with their comfortable lives also led them to examine and question some of the big problems in American life. That questioning was partly responsible for creating some of the most sweeping social changes in American life. Although their own lives were comfortable, they began to notice that others, even of their own generation, were not as fortunate. The term "baby boomer" is in many ways a stereotype, one that describes white, middle-class, suburban kids but leaves out poor and minority communities. In the early 1960s, as the first boomers went off to college, they were troubled by racial segregation and discrimination that was brought to light by the African American civil rights movement (see entry under 1960s— The Way We Lived in volume 4) of the time. Some baby boomers joined with African Americans in this struggle.

Politically, baby boomers were troubled by the Cold War (the political and military standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union that began in 1946 and ended in 1991; see entry under 1940s—The Way We Lived in volume 3), and the threat nuclear weapons presented to everyone's lives. They also began to protest American involvement in the Vietnam War (1954–75), an outgrowth of the Cold War. Many of the baby boomers could avoid the war at first by attending college. Many of the poorer baby boomers who could not go to college fought in Vietnam. Fifty-eight thousand died in that effort. Baby boomers protested the war in greater numbers during the 1960s, helping to finally end it. The social protest of the 1960s, with its questioning of authority and social injustice, was due in large part to the baby-boom generation.

As the baby-boom generation matured in the 1970s and 1980s, many left behind their youthful rebellion and became what were called "yuppies" (see entry under 1980s—The Way We Lived in volume 5), slang for young urban professionals. Although many baby boomers had once criticized the boredom of affluence, as they began their own families, the boomers sought secure and high-paying jobs that would provide them with their own affluent lifestyles. At whatever stage of their lives, the baby-boom generation has proved to be a powerful force in American political, social, and cultural life.

—Timothy Berg

For More Information

Gitlin, Todd. The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage. New York: Bantam Books, 1987.

Hamilton, Neil A., et al., eds. Atlas of the Baby Boom Generation. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2000.

Jones, Landon Y. Great Expectations: America and the Baby Boom Generation. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1980.

Light, Paul Charles. Baby Boomers. New York: Norton, 1988.

Makower, Joel. Boom!: Talkin' About Our Generation. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1985.

Owram, Doug. Born at the Right Time: A History of the Baby Boom Generation. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996.

Baby Boomers

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Baby Boomers


The baby boom in the United States, which occurred between 1946 and 1964, took many social scientists by surprise, especially demographers. Few social scientists expected that the general fertility rate in the United States would rise from a record low in the mid-1930s to a record high in 1957 and then fall to a new record low in 1976. About 75 million more babies were born during the baby boom than expected, based upon previous fertility rates. Social scientists have pointed to two events that may have contributed to the baby boom: the Great Depression and World War II. The economic hardship that accompanied the Great Depression had a profound impact on American families, inducing the conscious decision by many to limit family size or to remain childless altogether. Births were postponed not only during the Great Depression but also during World War II, when many men were fighting overseas and many women working outside of the home (Macunovich 2002).

The conclusion of World War II brought a feeling of optimism and a period of prosperity, manifested in part by a rise in births. After World War II, soldiers returned home with entitlements that enabled them to participate in a housing boom that was one of the single greatest opportunities for wealth accumulation ever. Women who had been working in the labor force, some for the first time, returned home, and many remained there for decades to come. Individuals and families enjoyed a growth of pensions and Social Security for retirement. This feeling of great affluence and hope removed, at least temporarily, an interest in postponing childbearing. The resulting baby boom created a population bulge, the impact of which would be felt for years to come.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, baby boomers represented about 33 percent of the total U.S. population. They have left their mark on various social institutions as they reached key points in the life cycle. School-aged baby boomers resulted in overcrowded educational facilities. As baby boomers became teenagers and young adults, crime rates increased, especially crimes committed by individuals 15 to 24 years of age. Thanks to the relative prosperity of their parents, baby boomers became the first ever generation of children and teenagers with significant buying power.

Many baby boomers came of age during a time of immense social change marked by such historic events as the civil rights movement. Baby boomers were observed to have different lifestyles and attitudes relative to previous generations. Unlike their parents, baby boomers delayed marriage and childbearing while simultaneously increasing their educational levels.

There is evidence that even with increases in education and accompanying increases in incomes, baby boomers are a diverse group (Sykes 2003). About 18 million baby boomers (24%) are racial minorities. Racial minorities in general have lower levels of income, education, and wealth than their white counterparts. Even families with similar income levels often have very different levels of wealth. Baby boomers are more likely than their parents to be sole heads of households. Single-headed households are disproportionately found among the poor. About 10 percent of baby boomers never graduated from high school.

By 2030 the youngest baby boomers will have reached retirement age, yet some will not be financially ready (U.S. Congressional Budget Office 2003). About 25 percent of baby boomers will not have adequate savings to finance their own retirement and will place a strain on existing social programs such as Social Security and Medicare. By 2019 Social Security will provide as much as 70 percent of the retirement funds for baby boomers at the lowest levels of income, and there will be 3 retired baby boomers for every 10 workersfacts that compromise the ability of this safety-net program to meet the needs of current and future workers. Policy makers have debated about the impact that aged baby boomers will have on Social Security and other programs. Plans to address the issue include privatizing Social Security, which some argue would place the retirement futures of at-risk groups like African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics, women, the poor, and the elderly in economic peril.

The baby boom was a tremendous population shift occurring not only in the United States but also in other parts of the industrialized world. Individuals born between 1946 and 1964 have altered the age ratios of various populations and have profoundly affected social institutions and social programs as they reach various milestones. Proposed changes to long-standing social programs like Social Security and Medicare are thought to have a disproportionate negative impact on those at greatest risk, namely racial minorities and the elderly.

SEE ALSO Demography; Population Growth


Macunovich, Diane. 2002. Birth Quake: The Baby Boom and Its Aftershocks. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sykes, L. L. 2003. Income Rich and Asset Poor: A Multilevel Analysis of Racial and Ethnic Differences in Housing Values among Baby Boomers. Population Research and Policy Review 22:1-20.

U.S. Congressional Budget Office. 2003. Social Security and Medicare. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Lori Sykes

Baby Boom Generation

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Baby Boom Generation

After World War II (1939–45), American soldiers returned home from their victory ready to take advantage of a prosperous economy. Whereas the economic depression of the 1930s led to a drop in marriage and birth rates, the 1940s told a different story. There were nearly 2.3 million marriages in 1946, an increase of more than six hundred thousand over 1945. This was the first year of what became known as the baby boom, which lasted throughout most of the 1950s and into the early 1960s. Between 1948 and 1953, more babies were born than had been over the previous thirty years. Those born between 1946 and 1964 are called baby boomers.

The U.S. population increased from 150 million in 1950 to 179 million in 1960. This was the largest ten-year increase in population to date. By the middle of the next decade, baby boomers themselves reached childbearing age and birthrates again increased.


By 1958, children aged fifteen and younger comprised almost one-third of the American population. Toy sales that year capped at $1.25 billion, and diaper services were a $50-million enterprise. Many businesses profited from the baby boom, including school furniture companies, car manufacturers, home builders, even road and highway construction and paving companies. The suburbanization of America, in which large areas of homes were built on the outer edges of a city, developed at an amazing rate as growing families increased the demand for housing outside urban areas.

Baby boomers were the first generation to be raised with televisions in their homes. This technology gave boomers a sense of generational identity not available to those who came before them. Boomers’ lives have been defined by events such as Woodstock (a rock music festival that took place in Woodstock, New York , in 1969), the Vietnam War (1954–75) and the accompanying antiwar movement , the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63), the civil rights movement , and experimental use of recreational drugs and alcohol.

“Overcrowding” is a term directly related to the baby boom generation. First it was the maternity wards of hospitals, which had a difficult time keeping pace with the upsurge of births. As boomers grew, schools became overcrowded. The 1950s and 1960s also saw an increase in the number of children and young adults entering the juvenile justice system. The term “juvenile delinquent” was given to those who did not fit into the societal norms, and juvenile institutions filled to overflowing. By the 1970s, colleges and universities experienced twice the number of students entering as in the previous generation. As boomers graduated, the job market became saturated, and graduates had trouble finding jobs in their fields. By the 1990s, housing prices skyrocketed as boomers reached middle age and thus began to settle down. Owning a home—a big home, if possible—was part of that goal.

The drastic increase in population placed a burden on education, healthcare, and other social service systems in the United States. Larger sums of public money were required to maintain these systems and keep them running smoothly. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 330 baby boomers turned sixty every hour throughout the year 2006.

The first baby boomer filed for early retirement in October 2007, thus becoming the first to begin collecting Social Security. Social Security is a government system into which workers pay a certain amount, depending on their income level. In return, they can collect monthly payments once they retire and until they die.

Baby Boom

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Baby Boom is a term that describes the explosion of childbirths in the United States between 1946 and 1964. The annual birthrate jumped 13 percent in 1946 to 3.4 million, and then climbed fairly steadily to a peak of 4.3 million in 1957. Thereafter the national birth rate leveled to approximately 4 million per year through 1964. In 1965 America experienced its first year of a "baby bust," as births fell below 3.8 million. The national birth rate continued to decline until 1977 when Baby Boomers themselves started having children. Seventy-seven million children were born during the Baby Boom, as compared with 63 million during the previous generation (19091945) and 52 million in the subsequent generation (19651978). Several reasons have been proposed to explain the Baby Boom. First, millions of American servicemen returned home after World War II (19391945) ready to embrace life, settle down, and start families. Second, the U.S. to which these men came home was the most prosperous and powerful nation in the world, providing its citizens with an unprecedented degree of economic and physical security. Third, society traditionally encouraged American women to be homemakers. Fourth, both American men and women felt a sense of urgency in making the most of life, as they faced the uncertainties of the atomic age and recalled the painful memories of the Great Depression and World War II.

See also: Post-War Boom, Suburbs (Rise of)

Baby Boom

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Baby Boom ★★½ 1987 (PG)

J.C. Wiatt (Keaton) is a hard-charging exec who becomes the reluctant mother to an orphaned baby girl (a gift from a long-lost relative). She adjusts with great difficulty to motherhood and life outside the rat race and New York City when J.C. decides she must make some radical changes to her routine. A fairly harmless collection of cliches bolstered by Keaton's usual nervous performance as a power-suited yup-pie ad queen saddled with a noncareer-enhancing baby, who moves from manic career woman to jelly-packing Vermont store-owner/mom. Shepherd serves as her new, down-home, doctor beau. To best appreciate flick, see it with a bevy of five- and six-year-olds (a good age for applauding the havoc that a baby creates). 103m/C VHS, DVD . Diane Keaton, Sam Shepard, Harold Ramis, Sam Wanamaker, James Spader, Pat Hingle, Mary Gross, Victoria Jackson, Paxton Whitehead, Annie Golden, Dori Brenner, Robin Bartlett, Christopher Noth, Britt Leach; D: Charles Shyer; W: Charles Shyer, Nancy Meyers; C: William A. Fraker; M: Bill Conti.

baby boom

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ba·by boom • n. inf. a temporary marked increase in the birth rate, esp. the one following World War II.

Baby Boom

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BABY BOOM. SeeDemography and Demographic Trends .