American History
The Baby Boom

*After World War II, 9 million demobilised veterans returned home from the war (leaving only 3 million men in what had been a 12 million man army).  They created a world very different from the one they had known before the war.

*At first, returning GIs were worried about finding jobs and housing, and housing shortages were a problem.  However, the government was prepared to help veterans with the GI Bill of Rights.

*The GI Bill guaranteed unemployment benefits for up to a year for veterans who needed them.  They also paid for veterans to go to college and gave home loans to veterans planning to buy a house. 

*Although there was a housing shortage in big cities, GI Bill and FHA loans allowed the construction of many new homes in the suburbs—communities outside urban areas.  One of the first suburbs was Levittown, New York, created by William Levitt.  Using the same plan for each house allowed workers to build them quickly and cheaply, so that he could sell them for $8,000 each (or $58 a month on the instalment plan).  This suburb of cheap, identical houses was so successful that he built two more Levittowns in Pennsylvania (near Philadelphia) and in New Jersey.

*Building new houses was necessary, because as soldiers returned from the war to wives they had not seen in months or years, there was an immediate increase in the birth rate beginning in 1946 (and lasting until 1964), known as the Baby Boom.

*Between 1940 and 1955, America’s population increased 27%, from 130 to 165 million, and it kept growing.  The Baby Boom’s most fertile year was 1957, in which one baby was born every seven seconds—a total of 4.3 million in one year alone.

*Overcrowding in schools became a big problem in the 1950s.  At one point California had to build a new school each week.  In the year the Baby Boomers began to enter Johnson City Public Schools, some students only went half a day so that other students could go the other half of the day because there was not enough room for them to all go at once.

*Schools did benefit from government money, particularly federal money to improve math and science education, and the GI Bill which helped veterans pay for college.  Many states also improved their public university systems, building community colleges to help people prepare for larger universities. 
In 1940, about 15% of college-aged Americans went to college, while by the early 1960s, about 40% did.

*Because many growing families began living outside the cities where many people worked and shopped, particularly in quickly-built suburbs without public transportation, Americans became increasingly dependent on cars.  The number of cars in American more than doubled between 1945 and 1960 (from 26 million to 60 million), and by 1965, almost 80% of American families owned a car (up 20% from 1950).

*The increasing importance of the car led to the Interstate Highway Act under President Eisenhower.  It not only allowed people to travel and businesses to ship goods across the country more easily, it also allowed the army to move men and material quickly in the event of a national emergency—Interstates could even be used as emergency landing strips for airplanes.

*As people could move more easily, many did so, particularly to the South and Southwest, an area known as the Sunbelt (thanks also to the development of affordable air conditioning systems).  While the Northeast and Midwest lost population, Arizona, New Mexico, Florida, and especially California grew.  California replaced New York as the most populous state in the 1960s, and between 1948 and 1998 it more than doubled its representation in Congress.

*After the war, the American economy boomed.  During the war, many people had gotten jobs in factories and soldiers had all received government pay.  However, because of rationing, many people had saved their money because there was so little to spend it on.  After the war, as factories returned to producing consumer goods, Americans began buying all kinds of things.

*This led to the growth of businesses in America and overseas, as Americans began opening more and more branches in foreign countries whose own businesses had been destroyed in the War (or where they had not had some types of industry at all).  The Marshall Plan, which rebuilt Europe, also made Europe rich enough to buy American exports.

*Military spending had allowed engineers to research better plastics, metals, electronics, and other technologies that soon became the basis of new industries, including the computer industry.  Although the earliest computers were the size of several rooms and had less computing power than the average modern desktop, they still allowed people to handle information more quickly and in larger amounts then every before, which also allowed businesses to grow and research to expand.

*Even teenagers began working in Americas growing service sector.  Teenagers working was not new in an of itself, but many of these teenagers did not work to support their families, but to have spending money for themselves, which created a whole new class of consumers. 

*Furthermore, because they did not have to work, but only did it part-time, many more could complete high school and go on to the new colleges that were springing up all around America. 

*Although many Americans worked in factories, and fewer and fewer worked on farms (down from 25% in 1935 to under 10% in 1960 and about 2% today), more and more went to work in information industries or service industries.  Marketing grew, and companies sought ways to convince people to buy their new products.  Computer technicians programmed computers to do many of the jobs that had once been done by secretaries and clerks.  How people worked was changing, but as people moved to office jobs that did not produce a tangible product, some experienced a sense of dissatisfaction (while others who had worked on farms and in factories appreciated indoor jobs with no heavy lifting).

*Workers did lose some privileges (or gain them, depending on one’s point of view).  The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 outlawed the closed shop, meaning workers could not be forced to join a union when they went to work for a company.  On the one hand, this weakened the unions and their ability to demand workers’ rights.  On the other hand, it gave workers freedom to choose whether they wanted to follow union rules and pay union dues.

*Despite this setback for unions and the dissatisfaction some men felt with their office jobs (and some housewives felt at home and some working women felt with discrimination in the workplace), the 1950s were a prosperous time, despite the constant fears of the Cold War.

This page last updated 3 November, 2009.