The baby boom that began during World War II and continued for two decades was one of the most remarkable demographic phenomena of the twentieth century. From a low of 2.4 million births in the United States in the depths of the Depression, the number rose to 2.9 million in 1945. After the war the birthrate skyrocketed, reaching 4.3 million births at the peak of the baby boom in 1957. The two decades of the baby boom reversed nearly two centuries of declining fertility. The boom ended in the early 1960s, and the birthrate sank back down to the point where it began in the early 1940s.
A number of factors contributed to the baby boom. Part of the boom can be explained by the drop in the marriage age between 1930 and 1950 (to 21.5 from 24.5 for men and to 20 from 22.5 for women). But a lower marriage age would not necessarily result in a higher birthrate. In fact, during the first few decades of the twentieth century, the marriage age and the birthrate both declined. Nor did the baby boom result from a dramatic rise in the number of children per family; the increase was rather modest. Women coming of age in the 1930s had an average of 2.4 children, compared with 3.2 children for those who reached adulthood in the 1950s. What made it a baby boom was that the increase occurred after a decline in the birthrate for 150 years, and that it occurred among all social groups. Variables such as race, ethnicity, education, and income did not affect fertility trends. Although the birthrate varied from one group to another, the pattern, that is, the rise during the 1940s and the decline during the 1960s, prevailed for all social groups. Americans behaved with remarkable demographic conformity during these years. They married young and had an average of at least three children. Most women who married in the 1940s and 1950s completed their childbearing by the time they were in their late twenties. Thus, the smallest birth cohort of twentieth-century women, those born in the 1930s, had the largest birth cohort of children: the baby boom.
A major causal factor was the intense and widespread endorsement of pronatalism—the belief in the positive value of having several children. This accompanied a powerful ideology of domesticity that located the “good life” in the nuclear family, with a male breadwinner and a homemaker mother. Most Americans at the time believed that the best route to happiness was marriage and parenthood. Childlessness was considered deviant, selfish, and pitiable. Nearly everyone believed that family togetherness, focused on children, was the mark of a successful and wholesome personal life. The government poured resources into the expanding suburbs to support the nuclear family ideal.
The baby boomers became the youth of the 1960s, sparking the civil rights, feminist, and antiwar movements. They have carried tremendous economic and political power, coming of age at a time of relative affluence. As they age their numbers have brought attention to the concerns of the elderly. The baby boomers have transformed the demographic, political, and economic realities of the nation. No doubt their influence will continue well into the twenty-first century.
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