No rising generation

Reading Maggie Gallagher on how gay marriage will bring an end to marriage as an institution for procreation and Leon Kass on how the Pill has ruined courtship, you can see the usual story of a vanished golden age. For Kass, it’s the turn of the 2Oth century when “our grandfathers came a-calling and a-wooing at the homes of our grandmothers, under conditions set by the woman, operating from strength on her own turf”. For Gallagher, it seems to be the 1950s.

The assumption is that turning the clock back a century (or half a century) will be enough to restore the golden age. In fact, the turn of the 2Oth century was a period of moral panic cast in terms very similar to those of Kass and Gallagher. As effective family planning became possible for the first time, the birth rate plummeted, falling from 5.1 births per married woman to 2.6 in the space of only forty years for the cohorts born between 1860 and 1900. My mother wrote the book on this. It’s loaded with quoted denunciations of selfish females pursuing pleasure at the expense of their duty to the race.

As for the 1950s, it’s worth noting that the causality relation between procreation and marriage was mixed, to say the least. About 25 per cent of brides were pregnant in this period. Chasing this statistic down, I found a fascinating study by another ANU demographer, Peter McDonald. He argues that the rise of family planning contributed both to the boom in early marriage in the 1950s and to the rise of pre-marital sexual activity. The argument is that “the knowledge that early marriage did not now imply vast numbers of children” made young people unwilling to delay sexual activities, even though access to contraception was largely confined to those who were already married. I think it’s important to add in the influence of the short-lived Golden Age of full employment, starting during World War II and ending in the early 1970s. McDonald is fairly negative about all this, saying that “as high as 60 per cent of teenage marriages in Australia are likely to have ended in divorce.”

Lots of social conservatives want to go back to the 50s. But if we take Kass and Gallagher’s arguments seriously, they lead us back to the 1850s, not the 1950s.

29 thoughts on “No rising generation

  1. I think it is possible to find some groups of people who might have been better off in the 1950s as a whole, and perhaps this is where the idealized version of what it was like comes from.

    I’m sure a reasonable amount of uneducated heterosexual white males would have been better off, since there would have been more work for them, versus their high unemployment rate now.

    Its easy to think of groups that would have been worse off too. For instance, females, non-whites, homosexuals, white males with a non-English foreign accent and old people come to mind, yet they never seem to get a mention.

  2. Why the 1950s are popular:

    1) The Australia Institute’s research on quality of life finds that people are disproportionately likely to nominate their decade of young adulthood as the decade in which quality of life was highest. The 1950s generation is now passing from influence, but they have had a huge impact.
    2) Compared to the 1930s and 1940s – the comparison older people would make – the 1950s was a fantastic decade.
    3) Marriage, one of the strongest correlates of personal well-being, was high.
    4) Social capital was probably very high (possibly driven by the civic-minded post-war generation found in Putnam’s American research).
    5) Crime was low.
    6) As Conrad has pointed out, unemployment was low (less than 3% for the whole decade).

  3. I think point 1) is a bit depressing — its all downhill to the grave for a lot of people.

    I’m not sure how correct 5) is since the statistics are usually to reported crime that is easy to measure (like theft), not actual crime. Horrible crimes against non-whites (to blacks, for instance) occured but were either not considered crime (by the government) or would not have been reported (citzen against citizen). Many groups that now receive little to no bother now would have also been constantly harassed, although not neccesarily to a level where they would have reported the crime. Imagine being gay in 1950 — look what the Brits did to a great hero like Alan Turing, which wouldn’t have been considered a crime. Things like violence against women now have higher report rates as well and are generally considered more unacceptable (although whether this reduces the rate is hard to know).

    I think its probably more accurate to say that the distribution of different types of crimes was different, being lower for some types of crime against some types of people.

  4. I agree on the importance of full employment which I mentioned in the post. The 60s are popular (with a different group) for much the same reason. In fact, the culture wars are largely fought between the partisans of the 1950s and those of the 1960s which is a bit depressing when you think about it.

  5. The Golden Age ended in the second half of the 1970 Grand Final, when Carlton introduced promiscuous handball and Hopkins scored all those freakish goals.

    “Never glad confident morning again.”

  6. conrad: I am a highly-educated gay (white) male, and I would have no hesitation whatever in accepting a one-way ride back to the 1950s era of full-employment. Sexual liberation is a pale consolation prize compared to the post-1979 destruction of the Western Mandarinate
    and its associated job opportunities.

  7. Conrad – What you say is really beside the point. Nobody disputes that in some ways subsequent decades were better than the 1950s. But that is irrelevant to the contention that for the vast majority of people of people the 1950s were pretty good, and certainly dramatically better than a terrible Depression followed by a terrible war, what the previous decades had to offer. It may not have been much fun being gay in 1950s Australia, but it was even less fun being gay and unemployed (the 1930s) or gay and being shot at (the 1940s). Try to forget for a moment what you think the contemporary political implications of the 1950s might be, and look at it from the perspective of the people who were there at the time.

  8. As effective family planning became possible for the first time, the birth rate plummeted, falling from 5.1 births per married woman to 2.6 in the space of only forty years for the cohorts born between 1860 and 1900.

    Lots of social conservatives want to go back to the 50s. But if we take Kass and Gallagher’s arguments seriously, they lead us back to the 1850s, not the 1950s.

    Pr Q adroitly ignores the main point that conservative have to make about family structure: poorly organized families will be unable to deliver sufficient quantities of children of decent quality to maintain the nation. He seems to be more interested in delivering a gratuitous crack at some of the sillier forms of conservatism and a giving a neat plug for his mothers book (proving a conservative point that brains run in families!).

    The point of conservatism is to conserve good forms of life. There is every reason to be concerned with social policies that deform Austrralia’s traditional family structures, which have a proven track record in delivering civil populations (“moral panics” aside).

    In fact there is now a serious underperformance with the Australian native birth rate, particularly amongst well-educated females who tend to make better mothers. This is hard-headed Darwinism not misty-eyed sentimentalism.

    The native Japanese birth rate is not that much smaller than Australias. At current rates of native reproduction this nation, following Japan, would be well on the way to extinction within a couple of centuries or so.

    Japan’s Ministry of Health and Welfare reports: ‘If we dare make the calculation, Japan’s population will be? about 500 people by the year 3000.’

    …what is frightening about the forecast is that it’s a mathematical certainty if Japanese women carry on having just 1.4 children each on average – and if Japan doesn’t change its immigration policy. If things continue as they are, the Japanese will die out. It’s just a question of when.

    The ABS figures show that the Australian crude birth rate from 1894-1964 averaged ~23 births per 1,000. Even after higher infant mortality rate is taken into account that figure was still 10% above replacement values.

    After 1964 the native birth rate plummetted to ~15 births per 1,000. This is about 25% below replacement values.

    (a) Births per 1,000 mean population.
    (b) Deaths under 1 year per 1,000 live births.

    Year (a) rate (b) rate
    1894 30.83 103.90
    1904 26.41 81.77
    1914 27.90 71.47
    1924 23.21 57.08
    1934 16.39 43.59
    1944 20.98 31.34
    1954 22.50 22.48
    1964 20.58 19.06
    1974 17.87 16.14
    1984 15.02 9.24
    1994 14.47 5.86

    If family structures are allowed or encouraged to implode then the nation could have alot of trouble supplying labour for firms, and tenants for all those residential investment properties. Perhaps bio-tech could keep us alive for that time, or maybe info-tech can finally manage to crack the problem of machine consciousness. But a biological back-up would be handy.

    Fortunately Howard is doing a bit to crank up the native birth rate. And to improve the quantity and quality of properly selected and settled ethnic immigrants. But Howard is not immortal.

    Many hope that immigrants to Australia could make up the difference in the decline in native replacement values (

  9. Paul : Half my relatives are a minority group that wouldn’t even have been let into Australia in the 1950s. I copped enough abuse in the 70s and 80s to make me think that I wouldn’t take a trip back for nuts. Personally, I still avoid small country towns.

    Andrew : I’m not disputing that a lot of people had a good time in the 50s in comparison to what came before. I was just disputing the common assumption that the crime rate was low. It certainly wasn’t for a) crimes against humanity (perpetrated against blacks); b) violence and harrasment of minorty (ethnic) groups, who admittedly wern’t very plentiful back then; and c) possibly violence against majority groups (female). Is a high theft and low genocide rate better than a high genocide and low theft rate? I’m sure I’d prefer the former, even though I’m not of the group that were on the wrong end of the really big stick.

    I agree with you that the mental perception of people who actually lived through the 50s that wern’t affected by these things may have been particularily favourable due to their evaluations of time being possibly based on a comparison with the direct past. This is really interesting, because if it is true, then what it suggest is that the 50s wern’t in fact so good (maybe not as good as the 80s or 90s), it is just that people of a certain age group perceive them in a very biased context. Hence we should reject suggstions of social conservatives who use these surveys as evidence about how good the 50s were. Even if we had exactly the same policies, and they lead to exactly the same level of crime and employment, people would not enjoy the time as much.

    In addition, its completely fair to evaluate what the decade was like based on what people think now, since that is used as some of the justification for a return to that style of politics (which was part of the blog — what some social conservatives want ). I was just pointing out that the “greatness” of the 50s typically seems to be idealized and has a lot of the ugly stuff left out , and your suggestion provides a potential reason for why this is — who would care about a bit of violence after WWII ?

  10. I suspect that the culture wars are being fought between what might be called Menzies’ children and Whitlam’s children – people who came to full understanding in the ’60s and the ’70s. This would be consistent with JQ’s view if he was thinking in terms of the decades in which they grew up and absorbed stuff, rather than when they were pulling it all together. But the lack of substantive culture wars reflects the lack of substance; on the one hand the Whitlam lot are doing their best to ringbark the values of earlier periods (not just of the ’50s), and on the other hand it never seems to have occurred to them that they are not offering anything by way of improvement.

    This is likely to change when ringbarking brings everything down (possibly in gentle decline rather than collapse), or when a newer generation finds some sort of revival of values. Judging by history, such things work best when, while revolutionary, they are usually seen as repairs – but seen through distorting hindsight so that what they actually achieve is some sort of synthesis and new direction. We just don’t know yet which of these alternatives will come to pass, and in what form. One thing’s for sure – tomorrow does not belong to Whitlam’s children, nor did they have their yesterday. How galling that must be to the more perceptive among them.

  11. By the way, does anyone remember the name of that home schooling family in the USA that just had their 16th baby? They were celebrating because it was their first girl in several years, and the mother doesn’t want to stop yet (the father is considering going into politics, I suppose because he has vested interests).

  12. So Jack, the population must go on rising forever. Much more important to ensure we always have enough people to work, than that there are enough natural resources to keep us all from starvation.

  13. Conrad – But there isn’t anyone in Australia – except perhaps the left on economic policy – trying to take us back to the 1950s. The white picket fence family on the front of John Howard’s Future Directions policy in the late 1980s brought back the suppressed memories of the Whitlam generation’s teenage rebellion against their Menzies era upbringing, and they haven’t recovered. Howard, however, is a shrewd reader of contemporary culture, and has tried to prop up the family with money rather than re-introducing some of the policy props of the ’50s, such as no welfare for single mothers and making divorce difficult to get.

  14. I think the whole “traditional values” thing is mostly what people on the “left” complain about when they say some on the “right” are trying to take us back to the 1950s. Single income, mother at home, low divorce rate, less premarital sex, very few abortions, homosexuality downtrodden, women were baby factories, etc. From the point of view of these social ultra-conservatives, it was all downhill from there into the liberation of the 60s and so forth, so the 50s was the last outpost of “morality” and they think we’ve been corrupted since.

    For others, Id agree with the point that the 50s were comparatively good, probably the best since the roaring 20s, which were considered good times for much the same reasons – war was over, plenty of jobs to go around and less people to do them (lots of people dead), and there was a baby boom because people thought it was a good safe time to raise children. Its a recipe for a good decade. I daresay that if we had a huge world war of the same type (i.e. we dont blow each other to pieces or use nukes – probably impossible because that kind of warfare is over, what with new technology) there would be a similar period of prosperity, or at least relative prosperity.

  15. The post war 1950s peace would have been a time for a certain euphoria, similar to the 1920s, but there was probably a further ingredient for fondness for a 50s generation, namely technological prosperity. It was a perhaps an unparallelled period for the take-up of household labour saving devices. The fridge for the ice-man, the washing machine for the copper and was-troughs, the Hoover, the polisher scrubber and all the electric kitchen appliances. Then there was the great social leveller in the private car, before congestion would take the gloss off it. This would free women in particular from much of the drudgery of their traditional division of labour. That would free them to become the manageresses of the unpaid community sector of society. With husbands away for the day and the chores over quickly, that would leave them to carve out a networked domain of their own, running the kindergarten, schools, community affairs, etc, in a way their mothers couldn’t afford to. That gave them enormous power and a degree of satisfaction among peers, which their daughters in the paid workforce might learn to envy. Those daughters would never have the same female support network again when they dropped out of the workforce for childbearing. They would face a lonely time of it and quickly hanker for the paid workforce again. Without women at home in such great numbers as the 50s, it’s probably impossible to capture that particular high time for women again. There are some serious tradeoffs for being like the blokes now and we’re seeing it in the birthrates.

  16. Stephen L, it is quite easy to demonstrate with iterated composition of probability generating functions that if the expected number of children is replacement rate, the probability of extinction is unity. It is easier for a population to recover from overstocking than from extinction.

  17. Paul: I am a highly-educated gay (white) male, and I would have no hesitation whatever in accepting a one-way ride back to the 1950s era of full-employment.

    The prospect of being assaulted on a regular basis doesn’t deter you?

  18. On marriage and birth rates : The evidence as to whether marriage benefits people in terms of life satisfaction is very mixed. On average, there is little dispute that it benefits males on average. Alternatively, there are studies that show marriage is both positive and negative for womens life satisfication, suggesting that most of the benefit is going to the male (although I presume it is an area whether there is a reasonable amount of political bias in many of the studies).

    Therefore, it is probably reasonable to suggest that declining marriage (and hence birth) rates affects males the most. Furthermore, if life satisfaction of women actually goes down in marriage, then it suggests that declining marriage rates should benefit the majority of the population — and therefore, in this respect, women are better off now than in the 50s.

  19. Nostalgia for 50s Australia really, really bugs me. I grew up in a small country town in that period, and you will not these days see anything like the ignorance, poverty, bigotry and (above all) hypocrisy that obtained then.

    My irritation isn’t just because people like Paul don’t know what they’re talking about – it’s because this nostalgia has real political and cultural consequences. The conservatives and much of the left too seem to think there are things worth preserving from that time.

    Those who rebelled against all that committed more than their share of follies, but its not true to say they didn’t suggest alternatives – rather a lot of the alternatives were impractical. For all that, on balance they greatly improved this society.

  20. Ian Gould wrote:

    “Paul, . . .The [1950s] prospect of being assaulted on a regular basis [for being gay] doesn’t deter you?�

    Not sure of the stats here, Ian, but when I was a young man in the 80s, gay-bashing was pretty common. Anecdotally, it seems less common today, but I suspect that that is because these days the putative bashers (groups of low-IQ/education young men with sexual insecurities) tend to abuse drugs other than alcohol – that is, drugs which are less likely to trigger unilateral violence against outsiders.

    In any event, it seems a stretch to suggest a causational relationship between post-1979 economic fundamentalism and a latter-day reduction in gay-bashing. The former is an inevitable by-product of the 1960s counter-culture; the latter a fortuitous, long-tail coincidence. All in all then, comparing the prevalence of gay-bashing in the 1950s with today is a case of apples and oranges.

    As for derrida derider’s “My irritation isn’t just because people like Paul don’t know what they’re talking about – it’s because this nostalgia has real political and cultural consequences. Those who rebelled against all that . . . on balance . . . greatly improved this society�, who exactly is being nostalgic here? I have no interest in the baggage around any particular decade, other than whether or not it featured full employment. Hence, the 1960s – were they severable from connotations that necessarily make that decade’s full employment seem a trivial detail – would serve my case just as well. My *only* “nostalgia� is for that which I’ve never experienced: a secure job.

  21. PM – the first para is quoting Paul from earlier in the thread.

    The second paragrpah is not based on personal experience – I wasn’t born until 1961, nor am I gay – but there’s plenty of evidence, including from Royal Commissions, that violence against gay men was much more common back in the 1950s.

  22. If individual market-based decisions by women as to the fertility ratio they desire leads to the extinction of Australia (or the world) through declining birthrates, why is that (in the eyes of conservatives) a bad thing? I thought they were against the government pushing its policies on people.

  23. “The evidence as to whether marriage benefits people in terms of life satisfaction is very mixed. ”

    Conrad – I disagree again. Marriage is one of the strongest correlates of well-being. Maybe you have found an outlier survey, but the relationship between marriage and life satisfaction is very strong in survey after survey. Men gain more in physical health than women, probably because their wives nag them to see a doctor and feed them better, whereas single women look after themselves better than single men. But both sexes gain in subjective well-being.

  24. “If individual market-based decisions by women as to the fertility ratio they desire leads to the extinction of Australia (or the world) through declining birthrates, why is that (in the eyes of conservatives) a bad thing?”
    Because people with family values like people and see them as an integral part of our landscape, rather than the barrenness of tree huggers and PETA types who prefer abortion, the pill and homosexual coupling among other things???? How is your mum these days, by the way?

  25. Andrew : I’m not sure where you are getting your data from, but they are not just outliers (Although I tend to think the issue is highly polluted by hardline feminists on one side and hardline religous conservatives on the other).

    There is also a fair bit of ignorance in the way the statistics are done, since there are many surveys which simply look at well-being without taking into consideration the potentially different profiles of people who do and don’t get married (like differences in levels of introversion and neuroticism, both of which cause more -ve scores in life satisfaction). I believe one that does and finds an (almost) null effect on happiness for 24000 Germans, was done published in one of the APA journals a few years back. A summary is here -> (

    There was one done on Australians recently which I can’t find easily that tried to debunk some of the literature saying that marriage is bad for females, but if I remember correctly, it didn’t control for differences between groups before getting married (making it worthless for this issue in my books)

    I don’t have a decent social science database in front of me right now, but sticking these into pubmed

    “marriage gender differences life satisfaction”

    shows that the first relevant article suggests that there are negatives for females in certain situations, at least compared to males.

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