“The definition of crime is culturally subjective. So is society’s response to the persons who commit crimes. Crime is an act that is believed to be socially harmful by a group that has power to enforce its beliefs and that provides negative sanctions to be applied to persons who commit these acts”. (Wolfgang, 1978)
With the advent of each new generation, scholars, historians and politicians revel with startling new insights as to what the future holds for our offspring and us. The new generation dubbed the “Echo Boomers” on the presumption they will echo in the wake of the Baby Boom generation, is the focus such revelations. After having been caught off guard by the dramatic upsurge in crime during the adolescent years of the Baby Boom generation, numerous articles, books, congressional and presidential reports have focused considerable attention towards predicting the criminal behavior of these latest newcomers, even before they were born.
Following the lead of James Allen Fox, who in 1978 first addressed this in a book called Forecasting Crime Data, today many more highly acclaimed experts in the field of Criminal Justice are of the same opinion that there will be another sharp increase in crime and gang violence whence the echo cohorts reach their most criminogenic years, between 14 and 24 years of age (Fox, 1978). So far they have been mistaken. Crime rates have been declining steadily since the 1990s, when the first wave of the Echo cohorts bloomed into their most crime-prone adolescent years.
Currently there is considerable debate among Criminologist as to the reason or reasons for this decrease in crime when all data indicated the contrary would happen. One possible explanation for the inaccurate predictions might be a result of skewed statistical analysis from prior years accompanied with the changing mores of American culture.
There is general agreement among Criminologist that changes in crime rates relate directly with changing demographics. That is to say as there is a flux in the most criminogenic population, meaning youth between the ages of 14-24 years as being the most age-specific group that contributes more than any other to the rates of crimes of violence for the total population (Fox, 1978), so too will there be a similar change in crime rates (Wolfgang, 1978; Fox, 1978).
In the aftermath of World War 2, between the years of 1947 and 1964, approximately 77 million births occurred in the United States, known as the Baby Boom. As the largest birth cohort recorded in American history, they significantly altered the age composition of the U.S. population, such that a swelling of the age group between 14 and 24 years occurred in the early 1960s (and into the late 1970’s), hence violent crimes have increased 180 percent between 1960 and 1970. Baby Boomers today make up about 30% of the current population (Fox, 1996).
In comparison, the Echo boom Cohort rivals the baby boomers closely with 72 million born in the years from 1977 to 1994, of which the overwhelming majority are children of the Baby Boomers. As this new cohort’s name implies, they echo their parent’s generation; in shear numbers alone they represent twenty eight percent of the current population in the United States. The significant differences in their demographics is that one third of Echo Boomers are minorities compared to only one forth of Baby Boomers. African Americans account for fifteen percent of the Echo Boomers and fourteen percent are Hispanic, whereas only eleven percent of the Baby Boomers are African American and nine percent are Hispanic (Marvell, 1997).
As a result of many socio-economic factors, including the changing role of women in the family and society overall, the years in-between these two extremely large cohorts, saw a sharp decline in the annual birth rate by almost one half. The Baby Bust cohort, also known as Generation X or GenXers, born between from 1965 to 1976, is generally referred to as the “me” generation or generation of self-indulgence of the 1980’s. The first decrease in crime rates was predicted to begin in 1980, since the impact this smaller cohort had demographically was greatly reduced when they entered into their crime-prone adolescence years while the significantly larger baby boom cohorts matured into adulthood.
In terms of demographic changes impacting crime rates, the sharp decrease of the most criminogenic population from 1980 to 1990 was forecast to have resulted in a similar trend with respect to a decline in violent crimes. Dr. James Allan Fox wrote in 1976 An Economic Analysis of Crime Data, (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1976) and again in 1978, when he wrote Forecasting Crime Data. He states “The crime forecasts reveal a general reduction in upward trend during the 1980s and a trend increase during the 1990s” (Fox, 1978).
Dr. Fox attributes a significant portion of the crime rates rise and falls with the increase and decrease in nonwhite population. “The far more interesting relationship, however, is that between crime rate fluctuations and changes in the race-age distribution (as measured by the proportion of nonwhite youths)”. Here he states the cause of the sharp increase in violent crimes in 1963 and in property crimes in 1962 were due to “a sudden upsurge in the proportion of nonwhite teenagers (that is, those aged 14 to 21) who were born during the post World War II baby boom”. Dr. Fox further explained that there would be a decrease in these types of crimes during the 1980s as the proportion of persons, nonwhite, aged 14 to 21 diminishes, but rises again in the 1990s with the “swelling of the nonwhite population. These “new” teenagers are the children of the persons born during the baby boom”. (Fox 1978).
In a paper presented to the United States Attorney General in 1996 (based on 1994-95 census and UCR data) on Trends In Juvenile Violence, Dr. Fox warns that the current perceived drop in crime hides the “grim truth” that “violent offences by youth are raising and can be expected to increase further in the years ahead”. He further makes the observation that “The recent surge in youth crime actually occurred while the population of teenagers was on the decline. But this demographic benefit is about to change. As a consequence of the “baby boomerang” there are now 39 million children in the country who are under the age of ten….” and by the year 2005, the number of teens, ages 14-17 will increase by 20% (26% among Blacks), “as a result, we likely face a future wave of youth violence that will be even worse than that of the past ten years”. (Fox, 1996).
Marvin Wolfgang also agrees with this predicted crime wave as the offspring of the baby boomers reach their adolescences crime-prone years. In an article he wrote in 1978 Real and Perceived Changes of Crime and Punishment he notes that crime will decrease in the 1980s and again rise by mid-1990 but he adds that the effects of greater amounts of law enforcement activity or changes in the criminal justice system may have a significant effect on reducing the impeding rise in crime (Wolfgang, 1978).
The 1960s opens the decade as the first wave of baby boomers reached their adolescence crime-prone age, amid civil rights and anti war protests of the youth. Crime soars in the 1960s to unprecedented levels and continues to rise throughout the 1970s when the last wave of boomers mature into adulthood.
The period from 1980 to 1995 was one of favorable demographic change with respect to crime; the proportion of the population aged 15-24 fell by almost 20%. The beginning of the decade did show some evidence of this beneficial demographic circumstance when crime rates started to drop; this was short lived. By 1985 the per capita violent crime rates took a hike particularly among the most criminogenic youth. All this despite the advantageous demographic conditions as was forecasted previously (Levitt, 1999).
In yet another unexpected turnabout, crime rates including violent crimes dropped considerable in the 1990s with violent crimes showing a decline in the latter part of the decade. Presently almost a year into the new millennium crime rates is continuing to show signs of further decline. All this is occurring at a time when the Echo boom cohorts have begun to enter into their most criminogenic years.
The effects the political and socio-economic climate had on each of the major cohort groupings in important to understand in relationship to the criminal behavior of the youth. Also important, is determining what differences existed in the mores of American society that defined socially acceptable behavior from deviant or criminal behavior. Based on these vagaries of data and statistical analysis, it is quite possible that the 1960’s data in the UCR is skewed. If the data is inaccurate, then the whole presumption is wrong since it was predicated on faulty information.
In the 1960s and 1970s much of the unacceptable and violent criminal behavior of the youth stemmed from adverse political values of the ruling class and their resistance to change. Two prime examples are the youth’s involvement with the anti-war and civil rights movements (CQ Quarterly, 1997).
Many of the 1960’s political activism included “criminal” offences, which now may reflect socially positive rather than negative values, such as those associated with the same crimes in later generations. Civil-rights and anti-war demonstrations, which have come to be viewed as positive activities, were considered to be socially irresponsible and criminally deviant behavior, resulting in serious felony arrests.
These events occurred during wartime, which led to the social uprooting of youth, the governments enforced separation from their parents caused by the draft following the unprecedented disenfranchisement of the youth due to the unsupported war. Plus the tremendous rise in the adolescent population definitely taxed the available resources for dealing with socially unacceptable behavior making social intervention programs less likely outside the criminal justice system.
Racially motivated arrests under a false pretext of some violent criminal offense may have impacted the UCR statistics. Heightened sensitivity to civil unrest may have generated more arrests than in the preceding generation or one of calmer political socio-economic climates. For example in Chicago, when the police unmercifully gunned down the Black Panthers, did that constitute a clearance on their records?
Baby boomers, as a result political upheavals of the 1960s show an increased concern for and a heightened awareness of the socio-economic disparities stemming from continued racial and ethnic inequalities that did not exist in their parents (Mitchell, 1996). This has greatly influenced the outlook and upbringing of their echo cohorts regardless of economic class status.
These values were not as prevalent in the baby-bust cohorts, who in the main are not offspring of the Baby boom generation. This may have been an important factor leading to increased acts of violence, when demographically the conditions were more favorable for the opposite to occur.
More studies need to be developed that deal with learned attitudes and values being reflected in the raising of one generation to the next, and how that affects the mores of that society especially in terms of criminality & acceptable forms of behavior.
Factors other than demographics have to be explored to develop an understanding of why crime rates are decreasing at a time when most experts predicted the contrary. The challenge here is to consider all possible explanations, regardless of conventional schools of thought, if we are to take full advantage of this development for generations to come. Will it be short lived? Will crime once again soar in the coming years as predicted, or is something happening that can be understood and consciously incorporated into our society. These are the questions that must be answered. While there is no single answer, but a plethora of possible explanations, as diverse as law enforcement policies (Glazer, 1997) to abortions (Wanderer, 1999), this paper has focused two; skewed statistical data and changing mores in American culture. The problem is there is very little supporting evidence for either of these views that can be directly attributed to research. Therefore, these are simply empirical conjectures at best.
Bouvier, L. F. (1980, April). America’s baby boom generation: The fateful bulge. Population Bulletin, 35 (1).
Fox, J.A. (1978)
Levitt, S.D. (1999, August). The limited role of changing age structure in explaining aggregate crime rates. Criminology, 37 (3), 581-597.
Mitchell, S. (Oct. 1995). The next baby Boom. American Demographics, 17, 22-27.