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