The foxy fifties from the 1950s

Posted on October 1, 2014 by Eleanor McKenzie
Foxy couple

One of the things I love about researching a story is that sometimes I start off looking for one aspect of a story and end up pursuing a totally different angle altogether. What I’m about to write is a good example. I was researching celebrities, particularly actors, who are still foxy at 50 when I had a sudden realisation. There were more of them than I expected.

Indeed, nearly every major screen actor I could think of belongs to the over 50s club. Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Antonio Banderas and Denzel Washington are just a few of the male stars. Jodie Foster, Julianne Moore, Sharon Stone are some of the girls. And, of course the over 60s are well represented by actors of both genders. These names are just the tip of the iceberg. There are a gazillion musicians, artists and business leaders who also qualify for the “foxy and 50” accolade.

So I set out to investigate whether or not there might be a relation between the ‘glut’ of successful people in their 50s and population growth in the 1950s, in particular the decade 1954 to 1964. The latter year marks the final birth year of the generation known as Baby Boomers. Judging by the number of 50th birthdays I’ve attended this year, 1964 was a very busy year for midwives. And, indeed 1964 was a peak birth year for Britain with a birth rate of 2.93 children compared with 2.5 in 1960. The current rate is about 1.9.

The Baby Boom started at the end of World War II when service men returned home. Birth rates in the US started rising immediately, but it wasn’t until the years 1954 to 1964 that they reached their peak. During this entire decade, births in the U.S. exceeded four million annually. The peak year for births was 1957, so if you’re a ’57 vintage you have plenty of company!

The British birth boom had a slightly different pattern to that of the USA. After a brief post war spike in the UK, the British birth rate had dropped off by the early 1950s compared to American births, which kept rising until the late 1950s. Interestingly, just as the American birth rate started to decline, British births picked up again. This trend obviously had no connection to soldiers returning home.

Woman holding a baby

In the UK, the late 50s through to 1964 was the most important boom period and it had nothing to do with the end of the war. According to Professor David Coleman of Oxford University, who is an expert in demographics, two factors contributed to the British boom: increased prosperity and more widely available contraception. The first seems logical; with more money available, people feel more secure and able to provide for a family. The second reason doesn’t make sense at all. Surely, contraception should lead to lower birth numbers?

Coleman argues that the availability of contraception encouraged women to marry younger because they felt they had more control over when they might have children. More marriages led to women starting a family at a younger age and often opting to have more children. So what stopped this?

In brief, women in the workforce, especially the numbers joining the professions and having the right to maternity leave and pay. Once women knew they didn’t have to leave work if they had a baby, they started delaying having babies until they were older. This noticeable decline starts from the beginning of the 70s. Just about the time the Women’s Liberation Movement hit the headlines.

The significant number of successful and powerful people born in the 1950s and early 60s who are still going strong in their profession is partly a numbers game. It’s also a state of mind.
We Baby Boomers have a ‘can do’ attitude that combined with our accumulated experience should keep many of us – not just the celebrities—in the public eye or workplace for many years to come. Unlike preceding generations, we don’t feel old at 50 and we won’t necessarily retire at 60. It looks like the foxy 50s of the 1950s (and 60s) will be around for some time. I certainly hope Johnny Depp is.

by Eleanor McKenzie

Eleanor McKenzie is a Northern Irish writer with a passion for art, literature, and red wine. She's worked at advertising agency JWT, edited a journal for a European social policy think tank and tried to teach teenagers the difference between "there" and "their". Being 50+ has not significantly changed Eleanor's life, although she finds it a handy excuse when she wants to avoid anything too energetic.