Baby boomers are Americans born between 1946 and 1964. Birth rates fell in the United States during the Great Depression of the 1930s (when uncertain economic prospects discouraged many people from having children) and World War II (when millions of men were away from home serving in the armed forces). When the war ended in 1945, marriages increased and the birth rate rose. In 1946, births jumped to 3,411,000 (up more than half a million from the previous year); they continued rising until 1957, when they hit 4.3 million, and remained above 4 million per year through 1964. Nearly 76 million babies were born between 1946 and 1964.
The baby boom, then, consists of a set of unusually large birth cohorts (those born in a given year). Most people pass through social institutions at roughly the same ages, so that most children attend school from ages 6 to 17, most adults work from sometime in their 20s through their 60s, and so on. Larger cohorts strain institutions: When the baby boomers were of school age, new schools were needed; similarly, when they enter retirement, the baby boomers will place greater demands on Social Security, Medicare, and other services used by the old.
People who belong to the same set of cohorts are sometimes called generations, and they share some historical experiences. The baby boomers grew up in the long period of prosperity that followed World War II, a period marked by the cold war. Television became nearly universal during their childhood, just as personal computers spread during their adulthood.
Commentators contrast these experiences with those of the preceding cohorts, born between, for example, 1925 and 1940, who experienced the hardships of economic depression and wartime. Many commentaries on baby boomers suggest that their common histories led to shared outlooks on life.
Such claims ignore important differences among the baby boomers. Although the oldest baby boomers were in high school when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, the youngest were not yet born. The oldest males were subject to the draft during the war in Vietnam, but the draft ended before the youngest baby boomers came of age. Thus, baby boomers did not all have the same experiences at the same points in their lives. In addition, every age cohort contains people of different ethnicities, income levels, political affiliations, and so on. If the baby boomers share some things, they remain a diverse population.
Although commentators also generalize about other generations, such as “Generation X” (those born following the baby boom, roughly 1965-80), similar qualifications are in order. People born at about the same time experience major historical events at roughly the same point in their lives; still, every birth cohort contains people from diverse social circumstances. Yet the sheer size of particular cohorts affects social institutions: Large cohorts will, at different times, require many schoolrooms and nursing home beds, whereas smaller cohorts may require institutions built for larger client populations to shrink.
- Gillon, Steve. 2004. Boomer Nation: The Largest and Richest Generation Ever and How It Changed America. New York: Free Press.
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