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1 The Collision Of Cultures
2 Britain And Its Colonies
3 Colonial Ways Of Life
4 The Imperial Perspective
5 From Empire To Independence
6 The American Revolution
7 Shaping A Federal Union
8 The Federalist Era
9 The Early Republic
10 Nationalism And Sectionalism
11 The Jacksonian Impulse
12 The Dynamics Of Growth
13 An American Renaissance: Religion, Romanticism, And Reform
14 Manifest Destiny
15 The Old South
16 The Crisis Of Union
17 The War Of The Union
18 Reconstruction: North And South
19 New Frontiers: South And West
20 Big Business And Organized Labor
21 The Emergence Of Urban America
22 Gilded-age Politics And Agrarian Revolt
23 An American Empire
24 The Progressive Era
25 America And The Great War
26 The Modern Temper
27 Republican Resurgence And Decline
28 New Deal America
29 From Isolation To Global War
30 The Second World War
31 The Fair Deal And Containment
32 Through The Picture Window: Society And Culture, 19451960
33 Conflict And Deadlock: The Eisenhower Years
34 New Frontiers: Politics And Social Change In The 1960s
35 Rebellion And Reaction In The 1960s And 1970s
36 A Conservative Insurgency
37 Triumph And Tragedy: America At The Turn Of The Century

Chapter 32: Through The Picture Window: Society And Culture, 19451960

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Baby Boomers (1988), Paul Light

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Demographers were clearly surprised by the baby boom. Even as the first baby boomers were being born in 1946, most population forecasters were predicting a continued decline in ferility. Most expected a slight rise in births as families made up for lost time following the war, but with a quick retrun to the Depression-era baby bust. None were prepared for the twenty-year surge that was the baby boom. The Population Reference Bureau, a Washington, D.C., research institute, describes it this way: "Simply put, the baby boom was a 'disturbance' which emanated from a decade-and-a-half-long fertility splurge on the part of American couples. This post-World War II phenomenon upset what had been a century-long decline in the U.S. fertility rate," a decline which resumed at the end of the baby boom in the mid-1960s. Though demographers quibble over the relative merits of using fertility rates or total births as a way to define the baby boom, most nevertheless agree on the 1946-1964 birthdate. Whereas the fertility rate had averaged roughly 2.1 births per woman in the 1930s, it peaked at 3.7 in the late 1950s, and fell to 1.8 by the mid-1970s.

The demographers also agree on the underlying social engine that kept the baby boom going long past the normal post-war increase. Louise Russell, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, sums up the simple facts as follows: "More women married than ever before. More women who married had children. They had their children earlier. And some had more children." Thus did a relatively small generation beget a very large one. It is particularly important, however, to recognize that most baby boomers did not grow up in large families. Though there was some increase in the number of women who had three or four children, the number who had five actually fell during the twenty-year period. Much of the boom came from women who would have remained childless in other times.

Inded, the key to understanding the birth of the baby boom is the remarkable social homogeneity of the era. The baby boom was the product of standardized fertility. It was as if every American couple had taken an oath at marriage to love, honor, and obey the national average of two kids per family. Members of the baby boom were more likely than those in the generation before it to grow up in roughly the same sized family—two married natural parents, one or two brothers or sisters. According to demographer Charles Westoff, the baby boom involved a "movement away from spinsterhood, childless marriage and the one-child family, and a bunching together of births at early ages."

The statistics prove the point. The number of women having at least two children increased by half between the 1930s and 1950s, resulting in a demographic wedge of 75 million children. It was a sea of babies, with one wave of four million babies after another every year for a decade. With the maternity wards filled to capacity, many baby boomers spent their first days of life neatly tucked away in hospital hallways, operating suites, even boiler rooms—one crib after another lined up in a seemingly endless line of babies.


[From Paul Charles Light, Baby Boomers (New York: Norton, 1988), pp. 22–24.]

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