Born between 1946 and 1964, the baby boomers represent the largest generational birth cohort in U.S. history–nearly 76.5 million in total. Following World War II, a fertility surge coincided with rapid economic expansion. Government, industry, and society all fueled the boom. Governmental policies encouraged particular models of suburban family life, from expanded veterans' benefits and easy housing loans to the replacement of many women in wartime jobs with men in peacetime employment. From 1950 to 1970, the suburban population doubled, from 36 to 72 million, becoming the largest single sector of the nation's population. Though suburbanization was a predominantly white, middle-class phenomenon, the boom crossed nearly all categories of race, class, ethnicity, and religion. Liberalized immigration policies also contributed to increases in the birthrate, especially for Mexican and Chinese people in the United States, throughout the late 1940s and 1950s.
As Cold War anticommunism and pro-corporatism merged with the suburban ideal, the nuclear family became charged with symbolic and practical meanings for the health of the individual, community, and nation. Those who did not fit into the ideal suburban, middle-class, married, white family structure faced stigmatization. Black female household heads were frequently held accountable for their own poverty, and their children were marginalized. Such attitudes made it possible to formally and informally deny young, poor women of color access to a variety of health and social services throughout the 1950s and 1960s.
Community displacement due to wartime and postwar mobility and suburbanization decreased the role of extended family networks in providing parenting advice and support. In an age of technological innovation, parents turned to experts such as Dr. BENJAMIN SPOCK, who encouraged positive reinforcement and full-time parental devotion to affectionate child-raising. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, critics grew concerned with the potential lack of limits that could result from what scholar Richard Hofstadter called "the overvalued child."
Boomer childhoods were filled with vast institutional, social, and media attention. During the 1950s and early 1960s, elementary schools could not be built fast enough to keep up with demand, and membership in Little League and the Boy and Girl Scouts exploded. Churches enjoyed a rise in membership from 64.5 million in 1940 to 114.5 million in 1960 and especially in the suburbs churches developed recreational and youth programs.
The media quickly recognized the potential to reach the boomer child market via the new phenomenon of TELEVISION. The growth of children's programming, such as The Mickey Mouse Club, which began in 1955, allowed direct toy advertising to children, cutting parents and educators out of the loop. TOYS also shifted from parent-directed play to advertiser-led consumption. BARBIE, for example, introduced in 1959, just as older boomers headed into adolescence, modeled a teenage lifestyle of carefree consumerism rather than an idealization of motherhood or family.
In their teens, boomers continued to transform institutions and culture. HIGH SCHOOL enrollment rose due to boththe sheer quantity of TEENAGERS and an increasing pressure to keep all teenagers in school through graduation. Perhaps most significantly, boomers experienced the rewards and strains of school integration, which gradually followed BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION in 1954. Questions of racial integration and equality were concerns for most young people. Little practical change occurred until the decade after the Civil Rights Act (1964-1968), when 75 percent of African-American students still attended segregated schools. For later boomers, experiences of mandatory integration through the busing of students to various districts were common. By 1976, only 17 percent of black students still attended formally segregated schools.
Youth DATING culture changed significantly throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In the early postwar years, the previous system of dating many different people was replaced by the ideal of "going steady" with a single partner. Premarital intercourse became more common, although long after the advent of the BIRTH CONTROL pill in 1960, and even the legalization of abortion with Roe v. Wade in 1973, young people tended to be critical of "going all the way," or having sexual intercourse.
Like their parents, boomer teens eagerly embraced consumerism as a means of personal fulfillment, although they rejected the corollary of familial security. Marketing expanded to meet their desires for "self-expression," with everything from mod clothes to rock music. By the late 1960s, anti-materialist youth aesthetics were conjoined with teens who had higher disposable incomes and greater recreational expenditures than any previous generation. As such, the combination of consumerism and the linked belief in the therapeutic self came to define the baby boom generation. Together, they fueled young people's insistence on free expression, from boys wearing long hair in high school to the purchasing of "alternative" clothing, rock music, and drugs, to protesting against the Vietnam-era military draft.
Protest they did. In the late 1960s, high school students fought for a say on dress code regulations, textbook selection, and club management, engaging in sit-ins and publishing underground newspapers. They received validation from the more extensive and radical boomer college battles about free speech, the war, civil rights, and women's issues. They also found support in such institutional high places as the U.S. Supreme Court, which, in TINKER V. DES MOINES in 1969, ruled that high school students had a right to free speech. Young people also found inspiration in a countercultural movement for personal liberation that was geared toward universal love and a rejection of such mainstream values as monogamy and careerism.
While the way for part-time, discretionary-fund teen employment was paved by the rise of suburban shopping malls and fast-food restaurants, nonwhite and lower-income teens, especially young men in inner cities, needed jobs. For them, opportunities to work became scarcer throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Young people participated in a wave of urban uprisings throughout the mid-to late-1960s. They also organized to attack systems that failed to address their needs. In March 1968, for example, Chicano and Chicana youth organized a boycott of five East Los Angeles high schools to protest overcrowding, discriminatory practices, and related high drop-out levels.
Unlike early boomers, who were born between 1946 and 1955 and were collectively named Time's Man of the Year in 1967, late boomers (born 1956 through 1964) were in many ways the generation's forgotten members. American society was less invested in raising them as "ideal" children than it was in simply managing them. Many youth-related institutions were prepared to accommodate them. To further facilitate the gradual transition from childhood to adolescence, the 1970s saw the rise of the middle school. In 1966, only 499 existed, but by 1980 there were over 6,000.
Teenagers in the 1970s, in large part, retreated from political activity into a consumer-based exploration of peer-based belonging. Recreational drug use rose dramatically, and due in part to the women's movement and sexual liberation, teens experienced a gradual shifting away from formalized steady courtship toward heterosexual group socializing with more informal dating and sexual relations. Nevertheless, for some late boomers the 1970s were a time of involvement within the growing movements for people of color, women, gay people, and the environment.
Baby boomers redefined the meanings of childhood and youth in the United States. YOUTH CULTURE and institutions will continue to feel their presence for decades to come.
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