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0 The Myth of the Baby Boomers

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  • by Gavin Weightman
  • 19-03-2011
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I might as well inaugurate my Blog with a bee in my bonnet. There has been an awful lot written in the past year about the "baby boom" generation born after the end of the war in 1945. Two books began a journalistic frenzy in which I, and few million others, are accused of indulging in a kind of unwitting exploitation of the nation's resources. Born in 1945 I am, according to the popular accounts currently in circulation, a "baby boomer". My contention is that I am not. The year I was born was not a bumper year for babies. Nor was 1948, or 49, or 50, or 51, or 52, or 53, or 54, or 55 or 56. Yet David Willetts author of The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers took their Childrens' Future ( Atlantic 2010) and Francis Beckett who wrote What did the baby boomers ever do for us? ( Biteback 2010) believe they are baby boomers: Willetts was born in 1956 and Beckett in the same year as me. Whatever else the "baby boomer" debate is about it is predicated on the notion that there was, after the end of the last war, a sustained rise in births which produced a population bulge. This is certainly what happened in North America between 1945 and 1964. But it did not happen here.

I am going to demonstrate this with figures for England and Wales as it is simpler than totting up the totals for the UK. But if you add in Scotland and North Ireland the pattern is exactly the same. In fact it is quite remarkable how the rise and fall in annual births goes in tandem in all three registration areas. So here are some basic facts about live births, year by year, in England and Wales beginning with 1943 to illustrate that there were more births in that war year and 1944 than there were in 1945. I have put the two post-war boom years in bold.

Year Total of live births in England and Wales: 

1943 - 684,334

1944 - 751,478

1945 - 679,937 (Birth Year of Francis Beckett)

1946 - 820,719

1947 - 881,026

1948 - 775,306

1949 - 730,518

1950 - 697,097

1951 - 677,529

1952 - 673,735

1953 - 684,372

1954 - 673,651

1955 - 667,811

1956 - 700,335 ( Birth year of David Willetts )

1957 - 723,381

1958 - 740,715

1959 - 748,501

1960 - 785,005

1961 - 811,281

1962 - 838,736

1963 - 854,055

1964 - 875,972

A glance at the sequence of annual births will tell you that, with the exception of 1946 and 1947, there was no baby boom in the immediate post war years. If there is a boom at all it begins in 1956 and peaks in 1964. So the classic " baby boomer" from a bumper year was born in the early 1960s. And yet nearly every piece written about the boom generation has them as teenagers in the 1960s. Tony Blair, we are told, is a baby boomer. He was born in the Coronation Year 1953. Have a look at the figures: not a bumper year. Many fewer babies in fact than were born in the latter part of the 1960s. Some more figures:

Year Live births in England and Wales: 

1965 - 862,725

1966 - 849,823

1967 - 832,164

1968 - 819,272

1969 - 797,538

1970 - 784,486

1971 - 783,155

1972 - 725,440

1973 - 675,953

Of course the "baby boomer" thesis is not just about numbers: it is argued that those born during the first twenty years after the war were favoured in many ways with full employment and so on. Perhaps there is some truth in that, though our standard of living in terms of domestic comfort would nowadays be considered primitive. But if we were favoured it was because we were, in terms of births, a relatively compact generation. With the exception of 1946 and 1947, when the soldiers returned to the arms of their wives and lovers, the parents of the imaginary baby boom generation showed remarkable restraint.