The Baby Pop

There is a ‘baby boom’ in London. Births during the first six months of this year have broken all records.” So The Coshocton Tribune reported back in August1920.

However, the term ‘baby boom’ usually refers to the period roughly between 1946 and 1966, during which a high number of births were recorded in the United States of America. Hence, the ‘baby boomers’ epithet lumps together all the people currently between 44 and 65 years of age, give or take one year.

There hardly passes a week when the “baby boomers” don’t make into the local news, as if the UK had experienced a similar demographic explosion to the USA and -given that it is usually used in the context of a fiscal and pension crisis looming just round the corner- at the same time. I contend here that this is far from being the truth: the UK did not experience a ‘baby boom’ but a moderate increase in fertility for only the ten years starting in 1958.

To measure fertility, the best demographic indicator is the ‘total fertility rate’ (TFR). Its definition is rather technical, but I hope it suffices to say here that total fertility rates measure, well, fertility: when the rate goes up, it’s because more babies are being born.

So, let’s start with the US data. The next figure presents annual US total fertility rates between 1940 and 2009. It shows that total fertility rates exceeded 3.0 between 1947 and 1964. In contrast, they have lingered around 2.0 since the late 1980s.

What about the UK? The following figure presents TFR for England and Wales, along with the US data we have already seen. Apart from a blip in 1947, England and Wales experienced a sustained increase in fertility between 1958 and 1968. Hence, fertility started to increase about a decade later in Britain (the earliest cohort, who is turning 52 this year, has a long way to go until reaching state pension age –in contrast to the first American ‘boomers’). As importantly, TFRs in England and Wales never reached the vertiginous 1950s US rates –merely a modest 2.94, at its highest, in 1964.

It depends on your idea of how stentorian an explosion has to be to qualify as a ‘boom’, of course, but you would possibly agree with me that those who state that there was a ‘baby boom’ in the USA shortly after the WWII might have a point but that, according to the data, the news about UK births has been greatly exaggerated.

We estimated how many more people would be alive today if TFR in England and Wales had reached between 1958 and 1968 the average TFR the US experienced between 1947 and 1964. Accounting for age-specific mortality rates, there would be just short of 2 million more people alive today –around twice the size of Birmingham, UK second largest city, or about the size of West Midlands Urban Area (which includes Wolverhampton, Dudley and Walsall, apart from Birmingham) –the second urban area by size in the UK. Then we would be talking. However, compared to the American case, all we saw in Britain was but a baby ‘pop’.

2 thoughts on “The Baby Pop”

  1. Thank you for clarifying the facts. It is not the first time American statistics and research results have been inaccurately used in the UK.

    People are living longer of course. My question is,. Are people actually old and fit?
    Just because the things which would have killed many of us off in our prime are now stopped for example:- Improved working conditions and the Clean Air Act. Good healthcare in general.

    Old age still brings on the creaks and groans of our bodies as we continue to wrinkle and fade.

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