Malthusianism does a pretty good job of capturing the facts of life for our species before the Industrial Revolution. For example, Malthus plus standard economics helps account for some of the historic differences between wheat and rice growing societies. And Darwinism suggests the reason why Malthusianism holds for living things in general: within a population, variants with a higher intrinsic rate of increase tends to replace those with a lower rate, even if the eventual outcome is overpopulation and misery for all. So the field of human behavioral ecology, based on the assumption that people try to maximize fitness, does pretty well in accounting for behavior in pre-modern societies.
But Malthusianism, and the assumption that people are fitness-maximizers, don’t work very well for modern societies. Even as life expectancies and standards of living have been increasing around the world, fertility rates have been declining, falling below replacement levels even in many less developed countries (although rates remain quite high in Sub-Saharan Africa.) The United States mostly follows the general trend, with a long decline in fertility rates over several centuries.
And then there’s the Baby Boom: Birth rates in the United States went up dramatically following the Second World War, then reached a peak in 1957, and continued high into the early 1960s. Young people were marrying early, and having more children. Women were staying out of the workforce to take care of the kids.
Births per thousand, USA
Here are two popular theories of why the Baby Boom happened that don’t work:
Soldiers coming home. The return of soldiers from the Second World War contributed to an early spike in the birth rate. But the boom lasted too long to be mostly explained this way, and involved a big increase in the total number of babies born, not just people getting around to having babies that they’d put off having earlier.
Women squeezed out of the labor force. Increasing employment and educational opportunities for women are one of the long-term drivers of the demographic transition. So were these factors operating in reverse during the Baby Boom? The data clearly rule this out. Women’s wages actually rose rapidly during this period, and older women, with their child-rearing years mostly behind them, responded by entering the labor market in large numbers. In other words, employers were eager to hire women, but young women, at least, thought they had better things to do.
Instead, the best account we have comes from Richard Easterlin. He proposes that the Boom happened because young men encountered an exceptionally favorable labor market, resulting from the conjunction of several factors. (1) Birth rates fell to low levels during the Great Depression, naturally enough. As a result, twenty years on, employers faced a shortage of native-born young men looking for entry level jobs. (2) In the nineteenth century, periods of high demand for labor saw increases in immigration; levels of immigration tracked the business cycle. But in the mid-twentieth century, legal restrictions made it difficult to increase the supply of labor through immigration. Employers instead had to offer higher wages for entry level workers. Young men felt they were doing well enough – both absolutely and relative to the older generation – to get an early start on marrying, and to support their wives while raising bigger families.
The Baby Boom would be its own undoing however. As the earliest Boomers grew up and started to crowd the job market and the universities, “The Sixties” took off.