I know this blog is for fashion history related topics so please forgive this sideline to the theme but something has been bothering me for decades and I need to talk about it — the term ‘Baby Boom.’ I was born in 1961 – six months before Barack Obama (a shocking revelation when I realized what I have not yet achieved in life…) The baby boom generation is usually defined as those born between 1946 and 1964 (give or take a year), but the children at the head of the boom really have nothing in common with the children at the tail of the boom and yet we are historically lumped together as a cohesive generation with a common experience.
Last year Tom Brokaw did a report on ‘Boomers’ on CNBC. His report focussed on the leading edge of the generation who are now hitting retirement age. However, those of us at the other end of the boom were too young to attend Woodstock, or remember where we were when Kennedy was shot. We graduated high school to a New Wave soundtrack; JFK junior, Lady Di, and Michael Jackson were our peers. We were too young to be yuppies and too old to be in a John Hughes comedy.
So, what exactly was the baby boom? The term was coined in the United States in 1948 even though the largest baby booms, based on a percentage of the existing population, were in Canada and Australia. Germany had been the first to have a baby boom in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Encouraged by the Nazis to increase the Aryan race, the German baby boom was large enough to maintain the same size population after the war as it had been before, despite the wartime death rate. In other European countries the boom didn’t get started until the 1950s, after postwar economies had improved. In the United States, the birth rate had been low during the 1930s due to the Depression. The baby boom actually began in 1942 when servicemen married, often hastily, before heading off to war. The birthrate peaked between 1948 and 1957 before steadily dropping off until 1973.
I don’t think demographics define the ‘baby boom’ generation accurately because a ‘generation’ is the result of a shared experience and there were too many differing influences between the late 1940s and early 1960s. Perhaps the baby boom should be expanded and divided into two generations – the upswing, front-end baby boomers (born 1942-1957) and the back-end declining baby boomers (born 1958-1973.)
In 1991 the writer Douglas Coupland used the term Generation X to refer to the ‘tailenders’ of the Baby Boom – those born between about 1958 and 1965, but the term was used by the media to include the following generation, born in the late 1960s and early 1970s, also often called slackers. I think most tailend boomers can find more in common with slackers than they can with older boomers.
I don’t know what the defining moment was that divided the two halves of the baby boomers — perhaps it was whether you were old enough to legally get into Studio 54 on opening night in April 1977, or maybe it was because we were that interim generation that remembers a world before computers, but have always had one on our desk at work…