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Baby boomers

With the end of World War II in 1945 Australia's servicemen and women returned and family life resumed after an interruption of almost six years of wartime conflict. Nine months later saw the start of a population revolution as childbirth rates soared - more than four million Australians were born between 1946-1961.

People born during this period became known as baby boomers. Combined with an increase in European migration to Australia, the baby boomers changed Australia (and the world) in the second half of the 20th century.

The 1950s: new arrivals

A Little Bit Louder Now, Johnny O

Ivan Durrant, 'A little bit louder now' (Johnny O'Keefe), 1999, synthetic polymer paint on board. Image courtesy of National Portrait Gallery: 1999.78.

Initially, baby boomers represented a new market whose needs were quickly met due to wartime advances in technology and a new economic optimism. The first vinyl LPs (Long Playing, commercially-available audio recordings on vinyl discs) appeared in the early 1950s and, with the release of Bill Haley's Rock Around the Clock in 1955, the younger generation was exposed to a new and different music - rock and roll.

Australian bands soon began playing the new music and artists like Col Joye and Johnny O'Keefe were topping the charts. Blue jeans and t-shirts became fashionable when teenagers mimicked American movie stars like James Dean and Marlon Brando. Comic books became the literature of youth and children started twirling in hula-hoops. The newspapers used the term 'juvenile delinquent' to describe young people for the first time, but mostly the baby boomers represented change in the eyes of the older generation.

The 1960s: coming of age

In 1964, eighteen years after the baby boom began, 'The Beatles' (the UK pop group) whirled around Australia with sell-out shows and frequent mobbings in Australia's cities. It was clear that young people were in control of culture. Though 'square' parents might not have liked it, rock and roll was the mainstream music.

The Seekers meet Prime Minister John Gorton at the Lodge

The Seekers meet former Prime Minister John Gorton at the Lodge. Image courtesy of National Archives of Australia: A1200, L68925

At the same time Australian bands came of age and in 1964 The Seekers became the first Australian group to release a recording that reached one million in sales. In the same year, Australia was shocked when the world's highest paid model, Jean Shrimpton, came to the Melbourne Cup horse race wearing a mini-skirt that showed off her knees. The shock didn't last long as mini-skirts rapidly became the height of fashion.

Politics was also changing with the baby boomers. The 'Freedom Rides' saw busloads of protestors led by Aboriginal activist Charles Perkins roll through New South Wales in 1963 exposing the discrimination against Aboriginal Australians who were not permitted to enter cinemas, pubs and public pools in rural areas. It forced the Liberal-National government into a referendum that changed the constitution to give Aboriginal people the vote.

There was more 'people power' when the war in Vietnam was opposed with a series of moratorium marches that shut down metropolitan Melbourne in 1970. The arrival of this political thinking in the late 1960s followed the rise of 'hippy' culture and alternative lifestyles.

The 1970s: coming to power

Between 1962 and 1972, Australia's adult population leapt by almost three million as the baby boomers reached voting age. For years Australia had been under a conservative government and the radical ideas of baby boomers called for change. A charismatic Labor leader called Gough Whitlam ran for Prime Minister under the slogan 'It's Time' with policies designed to get the baby boomers votes including free university education, withdrawing Australian troops from Vietnam and anti-discrimination laws for Aboriginal people. In his pre-election promise Whitlam declared:

The real answer to the modern malaise of juvenile crime, drugs and vandalism is not repression and moralising. The answer is to involve the creative energies of our children and our youth in a creative, concerned community.
Policy Speech for the Australian Labor Party, delivered by Gough Whitlam at the Blacktown Civic Centre in Sydney, 13 November 1972, Accessed 13 June 2004.

Not only were Whitlam's politics aligned with young people, but his campaign also had the support of young musicians and artists. When Whitlam was elected Prime Minister it was the first change of government in twenty-three years. Whitlam quickly introduced a lot of changes that had Australia reeling. His reforms saw a record number of Bills introduced into Parliament and a record number of laws enacted (although the Senate also rejected 93 of the Bills introduced). Whitlam's reform package became known as 'the Program' and introduced changes across every field of government including:

  • Australia's first federal legislation on human rights, the environment and heritage
  • establishment of a Schools Commission and national training and education scheme
  • abolition of university tuition fees
  • resumption of diplomatic relations with China after a twenty-four year hiatus
  • establishment of the Australian Legal Aid Office, a National Film and Television School, the Trade Practices Commission and the Law Reform Commission
  • introduction of a substantial regional development program
  • establishment of a Royal Commission into Aboriginal land rights that led to the drafting of land rights legislation and the establishment of an elected National Aboriginal Consultative Committee.
Gough and Margaret Whitlam accompanied by Vice Premier Deng Xiao Ping 1973

Gough and Margaret Whitlam accompanied by Vice Premier Deng Xiao Ping on a visit to Beijing, 1973, photograph: gelatin silver. Image courtesy of National Library of Australia

Whitlam was dismissed by Australia's governor general Sir John Kerr in 1975 and, for some baby boomers, this marked the end of their radical phase. Even their music, rock and roll, was being replaced with the arrival in the late 1970s of disco and later hip-hop in the 1980s.

1980s and beyond: ageing boomers

Through the 1980s, baby boomers tamed their radical streak and settled down to enjoy the wealth and comfort of their middle age years. With many boomers represented in the higher income bracket, this group has become known as 'Generation Me'. Australian journalist Mark Davis argues that baby boomers continued to dominate Australian culture, making it difficult for other groups to create change. According to Davis they have such large numbers that they prevent new youth cultures from thriving in an atmosphere of classic rock radio stations and conservative values.

From Mickey Mouse Club to Frequent Flier [sic] Club, baby-boomers have traditionally led a clubbish life organised around happenings and trends, from the twist to hula hoops to frisbees to disco to aerobics to line dancing. They give the impression that baby-boomerdom itself is a club, an exclusive gang, with everyone else on the outer.
Davis, Mark, Gangland: Cultural Elites and the New Generationalism, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, p.7, 1997.

Economically, baby boomers represent an even bigger future challenge. As the baby boomers grow older this group will distort Australia's non-working population, just as they increased its working population throughout the 1960s and 1970s. An older non-working population will put a greater strain on Australia's hospitals, aged-care services and pensions with many commentators predicting a financial crisis.

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Last updated: 2nd December 2007

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