The Baby Boom Had a Lot of Babies

I was talking with my parents, recently, about children and childhoods. My mother lamented that Halloween was on the wane, and attributed it, in no small part, to helicopter parents who won’t let their children roam the streets unattended. There may be some truth to this, but it struck me that the Baby Boomers’ childhoods were different in no small part because their generation was named for a very real boom in the number of babies. Here’s an interesting graph of the number of births in the US:

The population of the US has been far from constant, though, so let’s put that into context (births per thousand people):

One interesting thing to note is that the baby boom was only a boom relative to what came shortly before and especially what came after it. It was more common to have children in the early 1900s than during the baby boom, but that’s a subject for another day. The other key thing to consider, with regard to the baby boom, was that it lasted for a while. There aren’t hard edges on it, but it’s traditionally dated from 1945 to 1962, which is 17 years long. I think that’s significant in the experience of people like my parents, who were born in the middle of the baby boom.

Childhood, as described by people in their late sixties here in the year of our Lord 2021, was a fun time of independence and play, with children roaming neighborhoods without parental supervision. Part of that, though, was that older kids were expected (and usually did) look out for the younger kids. And I think a big reason why that worked out was that there were plenty of older kids around to do it.

Another thing that contributed to this phenomenon, I suspect, was the housing boom which happened (in America) after World War 2. Part of it was developments like Levittowns, but housing, in general, became much less labor-intensive as large machines and industrial processes replaced human labor with machine labor. The development of trucks (for World War 2) which could carry heavy things really helped with this, with more building materials able to be constructed efficiently then transported cheaply. We don’t tend to think of how trucks improve efficiency by separating things by distance but it’s far less efficient to make something on-site than in a place designed around making it.

There were also effects from the G.I. Bill which made it possible for many returning veterans to take out mortgages, which also helped to spur the market for cheap housing. That is often a cycle, as once a thing becomes cheaper you start getting additional demand from elsewhere. While that will drive prices up in the short term, it will also tend to drive up volume which (absent restricted resources) will tend to drive up economies of scale and to overall lower prices further.

When you put this all together it resulted in a lot of communities which were predominantly made up of people of child-bearing age, rather than the more normal age distribution one gets in stable communities. Baby Boomers who grew up in these communities would have experienced an especially large number of children around.

This will have effects on things like secular Halloween celebrations (Halloween is, after all, the celebration of the coming of All Saint’s Day, i.e. “All Hallows Eve”). When you have a ton of kids who will come out for candy, it becomes fun to stock up on candy and give it out. When you expected between 0 and 3 kids showing up, it takes a lot of the fun out of it. You’re just more likely to turn off your lights and pretend you’re not home.

The fewer kids who go out, the more the children who go out are alone, too. It’s one thing to send one’s children out on their own when the streets are crawling with children. It’s another thing to send them out into the night with no one around. What I’ve discovered is that, in practice, young kids really don’t want to go out alone at night when “alone” means “alone” and not “surrounded by other people, many of whom one knows, just not one’s parents”.

I think the absence of young kids also tends to discourage teenagers. It’s one thing to show up when unescorted children are around; you’re at least partially escorting them yourself by your presence. It’s another thing to be a teenager and the only person within view and be asking for candy from adults.

When you put all of this together, I think that much of how baby boomers experienced childhood differently than later generations was at least as much because they were born during a baby boom—and during a housing boom that often concentrated child-bearing families—as it was because of cultural shifts. Yes, this was before the news did its best to constantly scare parents about letting their children out of their sight, and yes this was when parents tended to have more children so they didn’t worry as much about each individual child because they had spares, and yes this was before designer children and helicopter parents. There are many threads that go together to weave a cloth.

All that said, I think that the boom in babies is an often under-estimated factor in what life was like for baby-boomers.

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