For the British ‘Baby Boom’ was very different to its American sibling, in both respects of the word. Demographically, Britain – like many other Western countries immediately after the Second World War – experienced a spike in the birthrate, but this dropped back quickly until the mid-1950s, when there was a less dramatic, but more sustained, bulge over the next 10 years.
Size isn’t everything, however, and the other aspect of the Baby Boom label is the period of prosperity and growth that followed the war in the US. O’Rourke’s introduction to the UK edition of The Baby Boom points out another fact that tends to be ignored in the slating of the British Baby Boomers – that ‘postwar experience in America was very different from postwar experience in a place where war, in fact, occurred. That is, we had the “post-” and you had the war.’
Throughout the book, O’Rourke’s fond accounts of growing up during the Fifties, which are generally amusing and often stylistically annoying, hammer home the space, freedom, affluence and indulgence enjoyed by the American Baby Boomers as children. In Britain, accounts of the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of the Fifties tend to extend to children playing by the river and neighbours leaving their front doors unlocked, glossing over the more drab reality that kids did not have anything to play with inside, and that most homes were not worth burgling.
Given the divergence in experience between the British and American Baby Boomers, one might wonder how the American debate, about the problems of the Boomers’ size, wealth and health (which, many grumble, means they will live ‘too long’, robbing younger generations of their fair share of pensions and healthcare resources), became plonked on to Little Britain with scant regard for the differences.
The answer lies partly in what the US Boomers did share with their counterparts in the UK, and in parts of Europe, too. This was the experience of growing up in the tumultuous Sixties, when youth appeared to be in the vanguard of a cultural revolution that swept aside established norms and values, rejecting the authority of tradition and, above all, of adults.
Swiftly demolishing another great myth about the Sixties, O’Rourke points out that, in reality, ‘the Baby Boom was the tailgate party, not the team on the field’: ‘There was a lot of “talkin’ ‘bout my generation” (Pete Townshend, born 1945), but it wasn’t my generation that was causing “What’s Going On” (Marvin Gaye, born 1939) during the “Youthquake” (a coinage from Punch, edited by people born when mastodons roamed the earth).’