Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

The '60s turn 50

By Claude Fischer

The Beatles

We have a commemoration going on about the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and the great social changes, such as the Emancipation Proclamation, which accompanied it.

The Beatles

There’s another anniversary coming up over the next 12 months or so: the 50th anniversary of "The '60s," by which I mean the 1960s as a distinct social, cultural era. It did not really begin in 1960 nor end in 1970. It began, culturally speaking, roughly in 1963-64 and petered out in the early-to-mid 1970s. If one is looking for a start date, perhaps the March on Washington, August 28, 1963, is a good marker ( video ); or President Kennedy’s assassination, November 22, 1963 ( video ); or the Beatles’ arrival in America, February 7, 1964 ( video ). Somewhere around then.

People often think that their time – particularly the period of their youth – is the fulcrum of history (see this study ). Everything before we were about 14 or 15 is old, everything after is totally new. (Novelist Willa Cather famously wrote that “the world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts”; historian Warren Sussman preferre d 1905.) We are usually wrong. Some periods, however, are distinct and fateful for different reasons. For the generation that grew to adulthood in the 1960s, it was about rapid cultural change, a change apparently set off by earlier, rapid demographic change.

Boom and bust

In an earlier post , in 2010, I pointed out the many ways that adults who had been teens in the 1960s grew up to be an historically distinctive cohort. They were more sexually active than earlier cohorts and perhaps a bit more active than later cohorts, too. They were more involved in drugs than those who came before and after. And they seemed to be more distressed as evidenced by higher suicide rates, divorce rates, and crime rates, in ways that often lasted well into their middle age. There are many accounts for why, but certainly one factor was that this generation rode a demographic roller coaster.

The graph below, drawn from the Human Fertility Database [1], shows, essentially, how many children American women had from the early 1930s to now (adjusting for how the timing of births changed over the years). What you see is a very rapid ascent from about two children per woman in the ‘30s to a peak of over 3.5 exactly 50 years ago. And, then there is a precipitous drop to under two children per child by 1975, in just 12 years. The ‘60s generation, for the most part, were small children in that surge of births from about 1948. And then they were in their teens as the culture turned upside down and birth rates plummeted. Note, too, that fertility has not changed much in the 35 years after the mid-1970s, when it reached about two per woman.


You can see the cultural aspects of his change in Americans’ desires for children. The next graph shows the average figure Americans gave pollsters when asked what they thought was the “ideal” number of children a family should have. [2] It doesn’t show the pre-1947 numbers, but early polls suggest that it was under 3.0 in the mid-1930s (p. 89 here ). We see a surge in natalism to 1962 (an average ideal of 3.6 kids) and then a precipitous drop – equal to about one child per family – by 1976. Note, too, that fertility preferences changed little in the 35 years after the mid-1970s, when it hit about two-and-a-half.


Demography is not destiny in total, but it strongly shapes destiny — the crowding in the classroom, the competition in the job market, the competition in the marriage market, the bending of economic demand, and so on.

A lot of other things changed during the years of that rapid demographic slide after 1963. I’ll mention just one here: tolerance for premarital sex. It looks like sometime between the mid-1960s and mid-'70s tens of millions of Americans shifted their views from describing sex before marriage as scandalous to describing it as acceptable. In 1969 68% of Gallup respondents said “wrong” when asked if they thought “it is wrong for a man and a woman to have sexual relations before marriage, or not.” In 1973, 47% said “wrong” (see here ; also, this academic study reinforces the impression that the 1968 figure, 68% wrong, was already a significant drop in disapproval since 1960). Note, too, that nothing much has changed on this score in the 35 years since the mid-1970s .

So, the Generation X’ers and Y’ers and the Millennials can chat about the way the world turned upside down in their youths. But it’s an illusion. Things have been relatively tranquil since the '60s generation of teens. And now, as they start to enter their senior years, the '60s generation can celebrate the 50th anniversary of the start of those turbulent times. We survived the '60s!


[1] Human Fertility Database. Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (Germany) and Vienna Institute of Demography (Austria). Available at http://www.humanfertility.org (data downloaded on 2 February 2013).

[2] The Gallup questions (courtesy of the iPoll data bank at the Roper Center, University of Connected) are “noisy,” because the question gets revamped regularly, but the basic trends are clear. The GSS question is “CHLDIDEL.”

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history .