Go Figure: When was the real baby boom?


Suddenly, babies are back, with a sharp rise in the birth rate. Michael Blastland tells the extraordinary statistical story of the original 20th Century baby boomers.

You were born into the most dramatic population change in UK history. At every age throughout your life, you stood out for sheer numbers.

But you were not born in the 1960s, or the years immediately after World War II, the groups usually thought of as the "baby boom" generations.

You were born in one year - 1920 - a year when the UK population stood at about 40 million, but still Britain's biggest year ever for babies.

But there's more to your story. It followed hard on the heels of one of the biggest collapses in births in UK history.

In fact, the generation of which you were part was born into three or four huge demographic upheavals within the space of seven or eight years. The first was World War I from 1914-18. Some of your age group are WWI babies.

The second demographic upheaval was caused by the Spanish flu of 1918-19 - more devastating, more lethal than the war.

These two events contributed for the three years at the end of the 1910s to about a quarter of a million fewer babies being born each year than might have been expected at the beginning.

And being born was only part of it. After that came survival. With rates of infant mortality about 15 times higher than those today, many of your generation did well to make it.

Then came the third event - in one year, 1920, a rebound in births so sudden, so big, that it remains the record year for babies in UK history, a record that survives despite a large increase in the UK population of childbearing age.

Imagine that every single class of 30 UK children in one year was followed a year later by a class of 37 or 38 - and you have something of the magnitude of that change. It's easily picked out in the charts.

Today, there's talk of a new baby boom. In 2010, there were about 807,000 live births in the UK, a rise of nearly 20% in a decade.

But 1920 beats that with ease, with probably well over 1.1 million live babies born in the UK as a whole, well above the post-WWII boom year of 1947, comfortably above the peak of the baby boom of the 1960s and far above the latest figures.

Only in Northern Ireland has the 1920 total ever been exceeded - as you can see in the second slide.

But the original 20th Century baby boom was also spectacularly short-lived.

This was the fourth event - the start of a renewed collapse of the birth rate, perhaps its longest and fastest ever, only a year later, quite unlike the more sustained boom of the 1960s and completing a sequence of down, up and then down again in the space of a few years by magnitudes that make you wonder how midwives, hospitals, schools and others coped on this rollercoaster.

Woman on bicycle pram in 1920s There were massive upheavals in the years around 1920

You can watch the age group from 1914 to 1920 move through the generations in this interactive ONS graphic (England and Wales only).

It shows what's known as a population pyramid at each census from 1901 to 2001. The babies of the Great War, the flu and the original baby boom can be seen from 1921 onwards, working their way through the years and the ages, as a cut in the side of the pyramid followed by an abrupt spike.

And what of these babies now? Today, those remaining are all in their 90s.

The total UK population born from 1914 to 1920 altogether, male and female, once numbering about 6.5 million, is still over 300,000 strong. But within that, some groups are dwindling fast.

Of men born in 1914, for example, there are probably only about 4,000 still alive.

They will be with us for a while yet. But the generation born into the Great War, the Spanish Flu and the UK's fastest and biggest ever baby boom, all in the space of a few turbulent years, is beginning to go its way.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    51.Vladimir Tepes
    "The peak of 60-65 is followed by a sharp fall in 65-70 and 70-75.

    Colour TV transmissions started in 67


    What a silly idea, hardly anyone could afford colour TVs in the '60s! I can't believe this has been made an editor's pick - what are they thinking?!? The fall is clearly due to the introduction of the contraceptive pill, as has been said by others.

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    the england wales graph is wrong it says thousands, it should be ten thousands. 957,782 is not less than 100 thousand. doh balls

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    In those years of 1920 people genuinely wanted children by Husband/Wife. Unfortunately , today people have babies because of other needs. For Instance, today single mums can get big benefit payouts of 19 years for each kid they produce payed for by the likes of us Tax Payers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    @Vladimir Tepes .."
    The peak of 60-65 is followed by a sharp fall in 65-70 and 70-75.
    Colour TV transmissions started in 67. Coincidence?"

    Yes - mid sixties on saw the introduction of the contraceptive pill. This and the NHS improving infant survival reduced the birth rate.

  • Comment number 54.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    Infant mortality in 1920 was about 80 per 1000 live births, these days it's about 6 per 1000. It may not be as big a boom but we still have a little bit of a population explosion going on, and we can expect more of the current population to survive long enough to need schools, houses, roads for their cars, power for whatever gadget gets invented next, and so-forth

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.


    "The second graph at 13:08 shows Scotland. N Ireland is in graph 1. Does this mean some of the graphs have been deleted?"

    I think they're fixing the numbering so that people stop complaining about the 05 being in the wrong place on the England and Wales graph.

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    The peak of 60-65 is followed by a sharp fall in 65-70 and 70-75.

    Colour TV transmissions started in 67


  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    @45. marie - sorry meant that the sons of the returning WWI veterans would be of enlisting age in 1939

    @42. tatzelworm - my family had it's lossess too, and I often wonder what our family would be like had they lived.

    That's the stupidity of war for you though. Old men sending young men to their graves.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    1 Hour ago

    The current UK "baby boom" is mostly due to my generation (30 something for the Carter USM fans?!) finally getting en masse onto the baby wagon. "

    Actually its mainly due to immigrants coming here and having children on the NHS. 68% of children in Londons schools are now from 'minorities'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    The second graph at 13:08 shows Scotland. N Ireland is in graph 1. Does this mean some of the graphs have been deleted?

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    People always talk of a population explosion, but these figures show that this is not due to increased births, (the figures in 2001 are approx 200,000 lower than in 1911), it is that people are living longer due to better healthcare and health education. If there no more spikes or dips, the population will likely level out in about 40 or 50 years.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    4 Minutes ago
    For all of you that can only focus on the '05 mistake... find something worthy to comment about please!

    The reason for the focus on 05 is it brings into question the accuracy of the whole graph!

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    39 Only just though. My grandad fibbed about his age & forged the papers in order to enlist a yr early, this was at the start of WW1. When WW2 came along in 1939 he was too old to enlist & was in the homeguard instead.
    You're right though, a few unlucky men had the dubious 'privelege' of fighting in both world wars. They'd be in their late 30's at the start of WW2.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    3. rob_of_the_rovers - the real one not the imposter
    "The country and the world are vastly overpopulated. We need to do something to halt the population growth and maybe even turn it into a decrease for a few years."

    Don't worry, nature will take care of itself. Once we can no longer afford what little oil there is left, society will collapse and the population will decrease rapidly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    I'd be really interested to see some links to research that examines why we have such large swings in birth numbers. Personally I would have thought that it would be fairly constant per million women of child bearing age but the swings up and down are huge with no really obvious correlating factors.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    At Colour Sarge:
    And in my family, they did indeed all died in WWII. :-(

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    If the 05 refers to 2005 (missing between 2000 and 2010) then the graph would look very different with a very large number of live births then.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    35: It depends if you can provide a good life for your children. Many can, and are very happy.

    I have chosen NOT to have children - me and my husband are happy, healthy and comfortable. However we may raise a child to have a good life and care for others/provide to society etc. However for every good kid out there, they will be surrounded by kids who are not and will bring them down - its sad

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    Strange twist of fate, that all those baby boys born in 1920 to returning WWI veterans, would have been old enough to be enlisted when WWII broke out in 1939.


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