Jan 102013

Lots of people talk about “the baby boom”. Lots of people make claims about “the baby boomers”. Here are some of the myths held by lots of people.

I have written this article as though I am having an informal argument with you about these myths. I accept that you may not believe them all, or indeed you may not believe any of them! Please forgive my style.

Myth 1: There was a baby boom from about 1945 to about 1965

Here is the UK population at 1985, showing people born in the years 1935 to 1985. It is ridiculous to choose the range 1945-1965 as a “baby boom”. 1965 was obviously near the peak of a baby boom!

Baby boom summary 03

(All graphs in this article use the female half of the Population Pyramid. This slightly exaggerates the size of older groups because on average women have longer lives. They have linear Y-axis with origin zero so they accurately indicate the relative populations at different birth dates).

If you really need to talk about baby booms, (but why?), it makes more sense to talk of two baby booms in this period, as below. The ranges are somewhat arbitrary, although the 1946 peak is unambiguously the start of a short post-war baby boom.

Baby boom summary 02

Although people call these “booms”, the peak at 1946 was less than 28% higher than the value at 1945, and the peak at 1964 was less than 30% higher than the value at 1954. This caused problems for maternity wards in hospitals and classrooms in schools, and puts a strain on housing. But the overall political influence once they could vote is small and diffused.

(For interest, there was a baby boom in the USA from 1946 to 1964. Apparently lots of people think the same happened in the UK. It certainly didn’t!)

Myth 2: The weight of numbers of the baby boomers gave them undue political influence

What weight of numbers?

When viewing a graph showing the whole population the baby booms become less significant. It wasn’t until 1983 (Thatcher’s 2nd general election win) that the 1945-1965 cohort could all vote. It wasn’t until 1992 (Major’s general election win) that the 1965-1974 baby boom could all vote. (And older people are dying off, for example only about 81% of the people born in 1946 are alive today). Here is a graph showing John Major’s electorate:

Baby boom summary 05

There were about seven 10-year cohorts in the electorate to be satisfied. There was no cohort that simply had to be appeased at the expense of the others. Even every 24-year cohort was a minority! And the same applies to every other general election.

  • From 1983: The 1945-1965 electorate as a percentage of the total electorate has been decreasing because they are dying and the total electorate is increasing.
  • Up to 1998: The pre-1945 electorate was larger than the 1945-1965 electorate.
  • 1998 to 2003: The 1945-1965 electorate was larger than both the pre-1945 electorate and the post-1965 electorate. The only election in this period was 2001.
  • From 2003: The post-1965 electorate has been larger than the 1945-1965 electorate.
  • From 2013: The post-1965 electorate will be most of the electorate.

There appear to be cases where being in a large cohort is a disadvantage. Some improvements can’t be afforded because too many people would have to be helped. The expected rise in the tax threshold for pensioners was not provided in the last budget. A new higher flat rate state pension is proposed, but it won’t apply to existing pensioners. The Dilnot proposal for a cap on pensioner’s long-term care is floundering, and if implemented at all will probably be inadequate.

Myth 3: The baby boomers manipulated political and economic factors in their favour

This is like a fart in a lift; it is wrong on so many levels!

First: even if baby boomers could manipulate political and economic factors, what is “in their favour”? At any election, the oldest and youngest people in a 20-year cohort have reached different life-stages and want different and often contradictory things. The wider the age-range of a group, the less they will have in common.

For example, consider the 1945-1965 cohort at the 2010 election:

  • All the women born in 1950 and earlier were already entitled to their state pensions. They wanted favours for pensioners.
  • The oldest men in the cohort were just starting to be entitled to their state pensions. They didn’t want any disruption to their entitlement date, and also wanted favours for pensioners.
  • But the youngest men and women in the cohort were in their mid to late 40s, and wanted lower taxes and favours for working people. They didn’t want to pay a lot towards older people’s state pensions.
Election Born 1945 – possible life stages: Born 1965 – possible life stages:
1979 (Margaret Thatcher) Age 34. Working. Living in first house with mortgage. Raising a family. Age 14. Still at school. Not old enough to vote.
1992 (John Major) Age 47. Working. Children leaving home. With mortgage. Age 27. Working. Buying first house with mortgage. Starting a family.
1997 (Tony Blair) Age 52. Working. Children left home. Probably with mortgage. Age 32. Working. Living in first house with mortgage. Raising a family.
2010 (David Cameron) Age 65. Retired. Collecting state pension. Mortgage paid off. Age 45. Working. Children leaving home. With mortgage.


From 1979 (Thatcher) to 2010 (Cameron), general elections have been at 4 or 5 year intervals. So a 20-year cohort corresponds to at least 4 general elections. Whatever the older people in the cohort want in a particular general election, the younger people in the cohort will probably want the same about 4 general elections later, by which time the older people will want different things. (When they have all become pensioners they will want some of the same things, but they will still have differences in health and wealth which will influence them in different directions).

Second: Obviously the political views of any cohort will be spread from left to right. They will have a spread of health, education, wealth, housing, region, family connections, and lots of other relevant parameters. They will have different degrees of political and social awareness and activism. These are likely to be at least as important as their cohort, partly because there is typically no loyalty to a cohort.

Third: how did baby boomers manipulate political and economic factors?

Even had they all wanted the same things, they couldn’t manipulate things simply by voting. The Party Election Manifestos didn’t offer options designed to appeal specifically to baby boomers. Scattered among all the other promises were occasional nuggets, for example the promise of free travel for the elderly in the 2005 Labour Party Election Manifesto (PDF). But most of the people who voted Labour in 2005 were young; older people mostly voted Conservative, which didn’t make such a promise! And even if free travel still exists in future, it will be 1925 before all of the 1945-1965 cohort are qualified, so the younger people in the cohort had no reason to want free travel in 2005. This promise was really directed at people born before 1945.

There weren’t lobby groups specifically for baby boomers. Baby boomers didn’t conspire to manipulate the outcomes of elections. Probably fewer than 1% of them ever had their hands near the levers of power. Nearly all of them were living in a country where things happened that they didn’t fully understand, doing the sort of things that other generations do. They weren’t doing things they shouldn’t have done, or failing to do things they should have done.

Conspiracy theories

This topic spawns conspiracy theories – people want to “blame the baby boomers” without bothering to do a reality-check. Here are a few:

  1. “The baby boomers caused Wilson to provide the Abortion Act”. The Abortion Act was 1967, and the voting age then was 21. Only people born in 1946 and earlier had a significant influence on the government. NHS abortion wasn’t provided because the baby boomers wanted it; it was provided for humanitarian reasons, to reduce deaths and injuries in women resulting from back-street abortions.
  2. “The baby boomers caused Thatcher to break the pensions index-link in the early-1980s”. When Thatcher was elected in 1979, only baby boomers from 1945 to 1961 could vote, only 33% of the electorate. Pensioners were about 23% of the electorate, so the pre-1945 non-pensioners were about 44% of the electorate. Why not blame them instead (or as well as)?
  3. “The baby boomers caused Blair to provide free travel in about 2006″. Free travel for people at least 60 was in Blair’s 2005 manifesto. In 2005, the people at least 60 were those those born in 1945 and earlier. This was an electoral promise for the pre-baby boomers!
  4. “The baby boomers caused Cameron to remake the pensions index-link after the 2010 election”. Most of the baby boomers were still working, and years away from being pensioners. The youngest baby boomers were in their mid to late 40s! And the post-baby boom electorate was significantly larger than the total baby boom cohort.

Myth 4: The baby boomers stole their children’s future

This is perhaps the silliest myth of all! What does this statement mean?

It is based on the subtitle of David Willetts’ book “The Pinch: how the baby boomers took their children’s future – and why they should give it back“. Imagine:

April 31 1973: “Bought a gun, went out and stole our children’s future”

If someone told you to steal your children’s future, what would you do? If someone told you to stop doing it, what would you stop doing? What have those children lost? Years of their life? Modern medicine? Modern technology? Greater education opportunities than baby boomers? Ohthey still have those!

It is valid to blame someone only if they did something they shouldn’t have done, or didn’t do something they should have done. And “should/shouldn’t” implies knowledge of the consequences and the ability to change those consequences. It obviously doesn’t imply simply “living in a country where, in retrospect, unwanted things happened” nor “living in a country without power to change things for the better”.

This myth is a unjustified slur by people who should know better, presumably as a cynical way to sell books. It confuses “correlation” with “cause and effect”, and so fails to describe why things happened, therefore is of little use in solving problems.

Further reading

Myth 1: There was a baby boom from about 1945 to about 1965

John Macnicol:
“In Britain, the total number of births averaged 800,000 per annum between 1941 and 1981, and peaked at just over 1,000,000 in 1947 and 1964. There are therefore ‘first wave’ and ‘second wave’ boomers. In 1953 the number of UK births was 733,000 – a mere 10 per cent above the average for the ‘baby bust’ 1930s and as low as in 1991.”

Myth 2: The weight of numbers of the baby boomers gave them undue political influence

Zoë Fairbairns:
“As we have seen, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were of baby boom age, and if the rest of us are to take the blame for the things they got wrong, we must also be allowed to take credit for what they got right. At last a minimum wage was introduced. There were improvements in childcare, and paternity leave. There was some cancellation of third world debt, and there were advances in equal rights for women and gay people. The Working Time Directive reduced the number of hours people could be required to work, and some peace and resolution was brought to Northern Ireland…. Above all, there is no need for us to apologise for voting…. A lot of my talk has been about privilege, but voting isn’t a privilege, it is a right. My message to anyone who has the right to vote but doesn‘t use it, and then complains that the government pays more attention to the needs and demands of people who do vote, is, MORE FOOL YOU.”

Myth 3: The baby boomers manipulated political and economic factors in their favour

Frank Field to David Willetts:
“I didn’t think that you could read the book and think that somehow the baby boomers had engineered this set of special circumstances that they are protecting. I think that they neither engineered them nor are they protecting them…. Another area where, in a sense, I don’t think your rational politics theory quite works, David, is that although as a group the baby boomers have been so well placed, within the group there are those who have not had the benefits showered on them. And they have more in common with the poor of other generations than they do with their own baby boom generation.”

Zoë Fairbairns:
“The pressure group Shelter … found that in addition to the 19,000 families officially recognised as homeless, a further 3 million people in Britain were living in damp, overcrowded slum conditions. Many of them were baby boomers too, as were the children of employed women whose average wage was £12 per week, while for men it was £23…. But the point is that the baby boomers were not, as some of our detractors seem to think, all living off the fat of the land…. The same applies to the privileges enjoyed by some – but not all – baby boomers. Free grammar school education, free university education, were only for the minority. Many from this minority are now in a position to write books and newspaper columns about baby boomers – but they should not make the mistake of universalising their own privileged-minority experiences. “

John Macnicol:
“But what has caused this – intergenerational inequity or the catastrophic failure of neoliberal economic policies over the past thirty-five years? The former explanation masks the latter and, in its most extreme version, argues that one particular ‘welfare generation’ has manipulated the public policy agenda in its own favour – covertly, concertedly and conspiratorially. In this form, it is a human agency explanation reductio ad absurdum, with little cognisance taken of structural economic factors. It remains unsupported by any convincing evidence from policy-making case-studies…. Third is the claim that the baby boomers comprise a uniquely selfish ‘welfare generation’ which has gone through life at every stage absorbing a disproportionate share of public resources, and has ended up in old age with ‘over-generous’ provision (particularly in regard to state pensions). However, complaints of this nature were not made when the baby boomers were younger….

“Even at the level of averages, a quick glance at the baby boomers shows that their path through life has not been all gain. Maria Evandrou has made the simple yet effective point that the first wave boomers were born into austerity but reached maturity in times of relative prosperity; with the second wave boomers, it was the reverse. Just taking those born at the peak of births, in the late-1940s, we can see that they experienced higher infant mortality, lower average family incomes, large class sizes in school and much poorer results in public examinations compared with schoolchildren today. Only five per cent of this birth cohort went to university. These peak boomers were becoming established in the labour market in the late 1960s, when unemployment was low, but they then experienced rising unemployment and inflation in the 1970s, when membership of occupational pension schemes was beginning to decline; and from 1980 the state pension fell in value relative to average earnings. They are now entering retirement at a point when returns from savings are lower than inflation: little wonder that increasing numbers of them have had to postpone retirement and continue working past state pension age. All in all, they do not seem to have been very adept at manipulating the public policy agenda in their own favour….

“To argue that current policies have been the result of the machinations of one particular ‘welfare generation’ is to trivialize history, and almost reduce it to conspiracy theory.”

Myth 4: The baby boomers stole their children’s future

Frank Field to David Willetts:
“But there is no evidence to support your assertion that the baby boomers are careless about that. Everything from the polls suggests that they actually want tough action quickly, which means that they would be paying the debt, or at least some of it, rather than passing all of it over to succeeding generations…. I’m defending them by saying there’s no evidence that they took any action to land themselves in this privileged position…. But I’ve never seen a demonstration of baby boomers with banners, saying, “Push up the price of our houses.” It was we who did it. It’s the political class that ought to be in the dock, not the baby boomers…. But what I’m trying to argue with you is that you can’t put chance in the dock. I’m saying the baby boomers are innocent.”

John Macnicol:
“Despite some pioneering work by John Rawls, Bruce Ackerman and a few others, moral philosophers have given surprisingly little thought to the question of age as a social division and the problem of distributional justice between age cohorts, tending instead to assume fixed populations over short time periods…. Allegations of intergenerational inequity thus lack a clear theoretical underpinning….

“On a philosophical level, there is the interesting question of whether such corrective justice really requires collective human agency to be demonstrated (just as, in law, intent is everything): arguably, a generation can only be ‘punished’ for monopolising a disproportionate share of public resources if it has acted deliberately and concertedly. If, on the other hand, unequal generational outcomes have been caused by structural economic factors over which human beings have had relatively little control then remedial action would be morally unjustified. Even if collective human agency could be proved, the problem is that corrective justice could only be applied at the very end of a lifecourse, and by then it would be too late. Can one really envisage an eighty-year-old ‘baby boomer’ having his or her accumulated savings confiscated by the state on the grounds that he or she was a member of a generation that had been ‘over resourced’ in the past?”

  2 Responses to “Some baby boom myths”

  1. 19 Half Moon Street appears to be a hairdressers going by the name of “fringe”

    enjoy reading your site – do you mind if I post your link?

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