Commentary Magazine


The New American Family:
Causes and Consequences of the Baby Boom

In 1933, a group of social scientists who had assembled at the request of President Hoover offered a composite work, Recent Social Trends in the United States, to the depression-ridden American public. In retrospect, perhaps the most remarkable contribution to this work was the forecast by Warren Thompson and P. K. Whelpton of the country’s future population growth. In 1940, the Bureau of the Census found that its actual count of the population of the United States, before being corrected for under-enumeration, was less accurate than the estimate these two demographers had made almost a decade before!

Today, demographers look back with nostalgia to this incident. For, ever since the end of the war, the American birth rate has undergone a metamorphosis which has left them only slightly less bewildered than the rest of the nation. Whereas it was once expected that the population would stabilize itself at about the 175 million mark, it seems now that by 1975 there will be 220 million Americans.

While the extraordinary accuracy of the 1933 prediction was based on moderately difficult statistical manipulations, it was not merely the result of technical agility. Demographers had also developed a plausible set of hypotheses to explain what had been happening to the population of the Western world during the past several centuries, and these gave some theoretical substance to their suppositions as to what would happen in the future. This was the theory of the demographic cycle.

At the beginning of the modern age, European fertility and mortality were both high. Many babies were born, but most of these died before they themselves could become parents, so that the population grew slowly. Modernization brought an increase in the food supply, an improvement in public sanitation, and the discovery of specific cures for one after another of the important diseases. The death rate fell, and since fathers continued to beget as many sons as before, Europe’s population increased very rapidly. Its cities filled up, and some sixty million Europeans overflowed into the Western Hemisphere and Australasia. Then, during the 19th century, fertility itself fell, and by the interwar period a family of one or two children was becoming the norm in all Western countries.

When the demographers made their remarkable forecasts, what they did was to extrapolate separately these downward trends in mortality and fertility rates, and apply them to a population gradually changing in its age structure. During the 1930’s, the population of Western countries continued to grow only because an abnormally large proportion still was—temporarily—in the age group capable of bearing children. The population of the United States was, in the common and ominous phrase, in “incipient decline,” and some expected this decline to become actual within a few decades. If the effort of parents to raise their standard of living, to avoid sacrifices in money, time, and worry, had made the third and fourth child a thing of the past, then why not also eventually the first child, which costs its parents the most? A widely used college textbook on the family was subtitled, “From Institution to Companionship.” As Professor Carle Zimmerman of Harvard put it, “Unless some unforeseen renaissance occurs, the family system will continue headlong its present trend toward nihilism.” Spengler’s decline of the West was spelled out in literal terms.

The temporary effect of the depression accelerated the long-term decline in fertility, and the result was the lowest birth rates in American history. It was typical of the apocalyptic mood of the 1930’s that these rates were not only taken as representative of the underlying trend, but were extrapolated to their disastrous culmination.

However one analyzed the trend, it certainly seemed in the 1930’s that the fall in the American birth rate had not yet run its course. The small family had started in the cities, and the nation was becoming increasingly urbanized. Or: the norm of one or two children had developed first in the middle class, whose standards of behavior were gradually spreading through the rest of the social structure. Or: the small family had begun among those with the readiest access to contraceptives, and these were becoming more generally available to the whole of the population. Everything seemed to indicate that the larger families still typical of farmers and unskilled workers would soon become only a memory. The postwar baby boom, when it came, was totally unexpected, and to this day no one pretends to be able to explain it very satisfactorily.

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Demographers believed at first that the sharp increase in the birth rate was due merely, or primarily, to a bunching of the births postponed during the depression.

It was soon clear, however, that the baby boom represented a genuine reversal of the previous trend: the average number of children per American family, on the decrease since the beginning of the 19th century, has been getting larger for the past ten years. The number of third and fourth children was still rising in 1950, the last year for which such details are now available. While a part of the baby boom represented a temporary spurt occasioned by the large number of postwar marriages and the soldiers’ return to their wives, a sizable proportion followed from the desire of the average American parents for more children.

In 1954, a record 4.6 million births took place, and during the decade ending in that year the boom in births had added 36.75 million babies to the American population. During these same ten years, moreover, infant mortality in the United States declined by about a third, so that the net effect of this astounding rise in fertility was greater than it would have been before the war.

By now, those who maintain that the postwar rise in fertility is only a temporary interruption in the long-term decline have become a bit defensive. As Professor Frank Notestein of Princeton put it in a recent article in the Journal of the American Statistical Association:

We are now in the position of speaking of a secular decline in fertility in spite of a fifteen-year period of rising birth rates. Our critics are asking how many years it takes to make a trend, and implying that demographers form an elite corps of double-distilled false prophets—that is, prophets who, being proved wrong, insist on staying that way.

After the recent débâcle, demographers no longer place much faith in mere statistical extrapolations. The important thing is not the statistical trend itself, which may be temporary and misleading, but the vaguer, broad social changes underlying it. Professor Notestein believes that the forces in American society that led to the small-family system must reassert their dominance, if not today then tomorrow. I would like to suggest that, on the contrary, the larger American family is developing a new institutional framework in which it can be more than a temporary aberration from the theoretical long-run trend.

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What changes have taken place in the American pattern of life that might help stabilize the present family of, say, three children? Several trends can be observed that seem suggestive:

(1) There is first, and most obviously, the transformation from the depression decade to the postwar boom. The buoyancy of the American economy has taken the advocates of full employment by surprise: Henry Wallace’s slogan of “Sixty Million Jobs” is as politically anachronistic as its author. That the expected unemployment failed to develop does not mean, of course, that the present boom will continue; it means only that economists’ forecasts are as fallible as demographers’. But even if the worst should come to pass and the United States should go through another major depression, the effect of this on the birth rate could not be predicted with any assurance. While it is true that, to some degree, parents choose between having a child and alternative ways of spending the money it would cost, a parent’s role cannot be adequately contained within the simplified confines of Economic Man. The depression of the 1930’s helped reduce the birth rate, but only because it acted in conjunction with other forces. The fact that the wealthiest couples typically had the smallest families, and that men on work relief had the largest, should warn us against a narrowly economic interpretation of fertility trends.

Actually, the causal relation works more clearly in the opposite direction. With an economy at the American level of technology, the principal economic danger is not a lack of goods but rather a lack of investment opportunities. By a curious paradox, the larger American family, though it entails a monetary sacrifice on the part of the individual parent, tends to balance this out in social terms; for the several million new citizens each year establish a demand for new homes, factories, and other capital equipment In the United States today, an analysis that relates a static population to the resources available to it is not only inexact but states a relation close to the contrary of the actual effect of population growth on economic abundance.

(2) The most significant increases in Fertility have been among those social groups that had previously shown the greatest decline—urban as against rural, professional or managerial as against farm or unskilled workers, college-educated as against grammar school only. Birth control has become what its advocates always claimed it to be, the control of births, not merely their prevention. If the ready access to contraceptives and the willingness to use them continue to spread through new strata of the American public, one cannot any longer assume that this will mean the automatic reduction of family size toward an ultimate childless couple. It has often been remarked that the American working class has no ideological independence: every worker is a businessman manqué. There is enough truth in this aphorism to have warranted the recurrent observation that the example of the small middle-class family was an important influence in reducing the fertility of other social classes. Today, however, the middle class sets a different example. The fertility of the classes with the largest families is still declining, and that of the classes with the smallest pre-war families is rising, so that these two are now both approaching a national norm of, let us say, something like a three-child family. The inner momentum of the trend is no longer downward, but towards stabilization.

(3) The “new look” in family size has some of the irrationality of any change in style, but it has also been motivated by the deepest aspirations of the American middle class. With a certain exaggeration, the United States can be termed the country of upward mobility. The behavior patterns of the typical American, to the extent that such a person exists, can probably be best defined in terms of the hopes and expectations excited by the “American promise” of a happier life. In the past, middle-class parents regarded it as their duty to offer the maximum advantages to a very small number of children; and this value was certainly an important reason for the spread of the small-family system. Today, however, the psychologists’ dictum that the single child is more likely to be neurotic has been spread through women’s magazines to become a commonplace of middle-class lore. Whether this is true or not is beside the point; the theory, even if spurious, has been widely enough accepted to affect present attitudes and behavior. If one has children at all, one must—for their sake—have at least two, and preferably three. The fact that the new trend in family size has been based on a reinterpretation of the parents’ duty, rather than on an attempt to reject it, indicates a greater likelihood of permanence.

(4) The small family of the recent past was, one might say, “built” into the small city apartment, which made an additional child an expensive and bothersome undertaking. Postwar building has been principally of a new type which lacks even the words to describe it. The old census classification of “rural non-farm” is clearly inappropriate, as is also the more usual term of “suburban,” with its connotations of above-average wealth. Sociologists have coined neologisms like “urban fringe” or “rurban” to denote this new phenomenon, but these have not yet become general. Whatever one calls it, the New Suburb is setting the pattern of American life; the three or four-bedroom homes are designed for children. During the ten years from 1940 to 1950, the population of the urban fringe grew three and a half times faster than the central portions of metropolitan districts, and this differential growth has probably accelerated since then.

The typical suburb of the 1920’s was the upper-class dormitory of a large city—Long Island or Westchester for New York, the North Shore for Chicago. Clustered as close to these as possible were middle-class settlements, invariably named “Garden Park Manor” or something as monstrously genteel. Today, suburban living is not restricted to the real or the would-be wealthy. The miles on miles of identical mass-produced dwellings hold lower-middle-class and working-class families even when they are new; and after they age a bit, they will become the lower-class tenements of tomorrow.

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What is the character of the family in these new surroundings? We cannot get much guidance from most works on family sociology, almost all of which have been written against the background of the rural-urban shift and its assumed implications. A minority of American sociologists, as represented by Professor Zimmerman of Harvard, steadfastly defend the traditionalist values—and size—of the old farm family. Most of the others have come, usually more or less reluctantly, to accept the small family characteristic of America’s larger cities as appropriate to a modern democratic society. But the actual American family seems to be evolving toward a third type, which is a compromise between the other two in terms of size but in other respects is a new institution.

In the New Suburb, hardly anyone rents a house; and home ownership, which increased by one-half between 1940 and 1950, has always been correlated with large families. In the New Suburb, the home is apparently becoming the focus of a more meaningful family life, so that it may not be so pertinent any longer to speak of the family’s loss of function. If the wife works, as she often does, it is not as a rule in order to establish a career independent of her role as wife and mother, but in order to supplement her husband’s salary or wage. If the man is usually away at work during the day, he spends evenings and weekends with his family; the do-it-yourself craze that has spread through American suburbia is a way of bringing the continuous extension and decoration of homes under the heading of “fun.” Parents no longer educate their children directly, but they are enormously concerned with finding a “good school” or trying to establish one through a Parent-Teacher Association. When details of this kind are added up, the sum is a milieu in which a childless couple feels out of place.

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These arguments to the effect that a middle-sized family is becoming the American norm are frankly speculative. But about the effects of the postwar baby boom we can be much more certain. Under any circumstances, the high birth rate will continue during the next generation, even if a family of one or two children again becomes the norm; the rate of population increase will remain high because of all of the future parents now being born. More than 96 per cent of those born during the 1940’s will survive to the age of twenty-one, which is now the median age at marriage for women. By the current pattern, these women will have half the number of children they will bear before they are twenty-six. With the age at marriage so low, generations have become very short; the style in family size must reverse itself rather quickly if the postwar baby boom is not to become the beginning of a cumulative increase.

In any case, no matter what happens to the birth rate, 36 million babies have been born during the past decade. Barring a national calamity on the scale of an atomic war, the vast majority of these will grow to maturity. As they move up into adult life, they will disrupt, one after the other, institutions built to accommodate more modest numbers.

The public school system, already strained by the extension of the average school period, is bursting. And a college education is now on its way to becoming the norm: in 1954, the total student body in the colleges increased by one-tenth over the preceding year—and this in spite of the fact that the entering freshmen, born in 1937, represented the smallest cohort of seventeen-year-olds that this country will see in many decades. The number of boys and girls of college age will grow enormously in the next years, and the proportion of these that will want to matriculate will apparently also continue to increase. One estimate puts the college population of the country in 1975 at about 10 million: the consequences are incalculable.

The postwar revival of the birth rate will directly affect the labor market only when the “boom babies” start to reach working age; and some of its other effects on the national economy have also been postponed. Since capital investments are made less in response to current conditions than to expectations of the future, entrepreneurs have been more influenced by expert opinion than by the actual growth of the population. In 1939, in what became a very famous address, Professor Alvin Hansen of Harvard predicted that the population of the United States would increase by about five to six million over the following decade; the actual increase was almost four times that. In 1946, the Bureau of the Census forecast an increase of 4.6 million over the next five years; the actual growth was double that. It is only during the last few years that population forecasts have become more reasonable—and that businessmen are coming to discount all such forecasts as a reasonable basis for new investment. As a result of this lag, the $40 billion per year that the United States is now investing in capital goods may not be enough to expand its plant fast enough to furnish the growing population with the increasing living standard that Americans demand as their right.

That is at least what an unorthodox economist like Peter Drucker tells us; and he makes a good case for his point of view. In spite of its extraordinarily rapid growth in population, the United States faces a labor shortage. Young men of twenty-one, now entering the labor market, were born in 1934, which means that they constitute a very small group compared to the rest of the population. More generally, the working population is small relative to those in non-productive age groups, and this disproportion will increase. Over the next decade, the number of persons under twenty will increase by about 16 million and those over sixty-five by about six million, while the core of the labor force—men between twenty-five and forty-five—will decrease by about two million. Each working person will therefore have to support a larger number of children and aged than in the recent past.

In the abstract, the working day could be extended, but hardly in the real American society. The proportion of the total population drawn into the labor force could be increased, but the trend in the other direction is likely to continue: the few oldsters kept on their jobs will not make up for the larger numbers of women at home taking care of their babies and the adolescents induced to go to college. Real income could be reduced by an inflation, but this solution to one difficulty could very easily become a more serious problem. The one way out of the dilemma posed by the imbalance in the population structure is to equip factories with every labor-saving machine and process known to American technology, and to invent more such. In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, Mr. Drucker has pointed out that corporations are not yet attuned to this overriding demand for faster capitalization, and he admonished business managers to stop making decisions in terms of pre-war conditions. His advice will certainly be taken, for during the next ten years the labor shortage will push every plant superintendent to increase productivity to its maximum.

To the extent that this difficulty is met, however, the problem of adjusting the economy in the following decade will be that much more difficult. In the middle 1960’s, the boom babies will begin to seek jobs in unprecedented numbers. They will demand these openings of an economy that has just spent ten years eliminating every dispensable job—of factories equipped with electric eyes, of stores designed for the maximum amount of self-service. What will happen then we cannot know, but we can be sure that that world, only ten years off, will be quite different from the one in which we are living. If the industrial plant and the full labor force are put to work, one can think of only two conceivable uses for their gargantuan product—war, or the industrialization of the world. And if they are not put to producing all they can, this will lead either to mass unemployment on a new scale or to an unprecedented amount of leisure time for all.

These are the seas through which we shall sail, with whatever courage we can muster from the knowledge that our nautical instruments are all faulty.

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