When we think of baby boomers we think of the people born after World War II. But there was also something of a baby boom after the First World War. In Great Britain, for example, the number of births between 1918 and 1920 increased 40 percent. For most of the Western World the number of births wasn’t higher than before the war but reflected significant increases over the depressed wartime levels.
If you were born in 1920, by the time you were about to turn ten a tremor that started on Wall Street had laid low the global economy. Your teen years may well have been spent with no job, no money and not much food. And the world only bounced out of that by going to war again. That same generation of young folks would now be 19 or 20, the ideal age to be conscripted and sent to the slaughter.
The World War I boomers, as teenagers and young adults, reacted to the times they were living in by immersing themselves in extremist politics, resorting to crime, or in some cases, hitting the open road.
In his book Teenage, British author Jon Savage notes that street clashes between Fascists and Communists became common in England in the 30’s. Several thousand young Englishmen traveled to Spain to join in the civil war against Franco.
Nowhere did extremist politics take hold of the country’s youth as thoroughly as in Germany. Young Germans were, according to Savage, “fodder for Fascist regimentation under the guise of self-rule.” The Nazis spun their twisted ideology as a triumph of youth. The Hitler Youth offered a sense of belonging and mission to a group who had known nothing but hard times. Eventually they had no choice.
Juvenile delinquency increased in most Western nations starting in the 30’s. Street gangs were a threat in both England and in the United States, in particular in New York. The term “wide boys” came into usage in the UK following the publication of a popular novel Wide Boys Never Work. That’s because they were criminals.
By the start of the Second World War, between 1939 and 1941, juvenile delinquency in Britain increased 100 percent, according to Savage. Venereal disease increased 70 percent and during the war years one-third of all babies were born out of wedlock. There was a spike in STDs and unwanted pregnancies in America as well, triggered in part by the “Victory Girls,” teenagers whose contribution to the war effort involved providing some short-term companionship for soldiers and sailors.
Whether it was the open space or their frontier heritage, American teens, or at least a quarter-million of them, responded to their situation by hitting the road (see Riding the Rails.) Many saw no other choice. Teenagers weren’t competitive in the job market. Even among high school graduates, less than one in ten could find a job. In the 1933-34 school year some 5,000 schools, with no resources to keep going, closed their doors. Of the 10 million Americans of high school age, only 4 million were in school.
According to Grace Palladino, author of Teenagers: An American History, “Social workers reported that unemployed youth described themselves as discouraged, disgusted, sullen and bitter.” Some became “Hoover tourists.” However romantic the notion, riding the rails was generally not a good time. Thousands lost life or limb hopping on or off freight trains and those that survived were most often tired, cold, lonely and hungry. And if they were black, they faced the added problem of brutal racism.
One type of despair was soon to replace another as a decade of Depression ended with another world war. By now, the World War One baby boomers were to become the World War Two conscripts. The generation of 1920 was between 19 and 21 when their country went to war. Eight million British men were drafted into compulsory military service. Ten million American conscripts were signed into service. While most countries started with 18 or 21 as their minimum age, it was lowered as the war dragged on. While you had to be 18 to be conscripted in England, younger teens, some reportedly as young as 15, could enlist. In Germany, as defeat began to appear imminent they lowered the draft age to 16, thus sacrificing a larger portion of their youth.
There were between 60 and 80 million casualties in World War II. Not all were on the battlefields or the seas. Some 50 million were civilians, killed in acts of war, in crimes against humanity, and in the case of about 20 million, from famine and disease.
By 1945 the generation of 1920 had reached full adulthood. They had experienced little of the fun and carefree existence that we have come to associate with youth. They lost their adolescence and were now faced with a world in which 3% of the pre-war population had just been killed. A world in which the barbarities and inhumanities of the Nazis had now been brought to light. A world in which more than 100,000 Japanese civilians had been wiped out by two atomic bombs.
Those who survived produced a new generation of baby boomers. Through the forties and fifties, the now-middle-aged generation of 1920 were to prove a socially conservative lot. Their goals involved security, a nuclear family in a single family home in the suburbs. They were fearful of not just nuclear holocaust but of “subversives” everywhere. When you consider the times during which they grew up and came of age, its easy to understand.