Opinion: UK riots – the mystery of the David Willetts’ rule of post-war baby boom peaks

We’ve seen and heard from dozens of pundits wheeled out over the last week to explain the riots we saw on the streets of some of England’s cities last week. But here’s an unasked question: did a Coalition minister unwittingly predict these riots with amazing precision, and in doing so offer up an explanation that has not as yet been suggested by any of the experts on our TV screens?

I am currently reading The Pinch, a book by universities minister and Conservative MP for Havant, David Willetts. It was published in hardback last year, and in paperback this year. It’s a book essentially about the baby boomers and how they relate to the generations either side of them. Lying back reading it yesterday evening, I sat bolt upright when I read the following:

Even in sober law-abiding Britain we saw the turmoil that resulted when the baby boomers were coming to adulthood. The two most violent riots in post-War London were the Grosvenor Square riots of 1968 and the Brixton and Broadwater Farm riots of 1985. They occurred around twenty years after each of the post-War baby boom peaks. (p129 of the paperback edition)

Thanks to my day job working for the Royal College of Midwives I was able quickly to get to birth statistics online. Taking England and Wales together, the link stacked up. The first postwar peak was in 1947 (881,026 births), which was exactly 21 years before the 1968 riots. The next peak was in 1964, with 875,972 births; this was exactly 21 years before the 1985 riots.

Unmentioned by Willetts, of course, are the riots of 2011. Well, the third postwar peak in births (lower than the other two at 706,140, but still a peak with a trough either side) occurred in 1990. Yes, that’s right: 21 years ago this year.

So, each post-war peak in births has been followed, exactly 21 years later, by violent rioting in the capital. Willetts makes the argument, put simply, that when you get a big bulge of youngsters coming through, you get trouble… I am sure he’d give a more intelligent, nuanced argument than that, but I only have one brain, not two.

Finally, I don’t wish to worry you, but we’re experiencing another baby boom right now. Last year there were 723,165 births in England and Wales; if it peaks at that number then mark my words, we’ve got 21 years to get ready for the great riots of 2031.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Gareth Davies 16th Aug '11 - 12:27pm

    With the final birth statistic we have another major governmental headache on the horizon- in 3-4 years time we will need more Primary School places than for the preceding generation. All this in an elongated age of austerity. Overcrowded classes would lead to poorer standards of education hence perpetuating the problem. Grim news for the 2030s.

  • Of course corralation doesn’t neccessarily mean causation.

  • Nicola Prigg 16th Aug '11 - 1:23pm

    I find these pieces of statistics interesting but surely Scotland has these peaks in rioting as well and no or little rioting. Surely there is something slightly more psychological going on other than a large group of youngsters will create riots.
    I’m 23 – so part of the echo boomers – the generation your referring too – both my parents are baby boomers (47 & 48) yet I’m not rioting and the English riots have appalled me. I know it has appalled other young people as well in my generation. We need to address the behavioural and culture that led to this.

  • Hmm. Reminds me faintly of the bit in Freakonomics that correlates Wade v Roe with violent crime in the USA falling off a cliff 17 years later. Correlation ain’t causation, folks.

  • Not suggesting this is the only reason why Scotland didn’t have such problems but it is worth noting that Scotland has a population less than half that of London, with a significantly lower population density it seems logical that fluctuations in population will have a smaller impact.

    The article is an interesting idea, well worth thinking about.

  • Ed Maxfield 16th Aug '11 - 3:09pm

    Great fun but almost certainly completely meaningless.

    The Grosvenor Square protests were an isolated event that bears no resemblance to Broadwater Farm. There were riots in Brixton in 1981 – how does that fit with the pattern? Studies show that women are having babies later in life so presumably the span between the baby booms is growing rather than staying static at 21 years. And why were there no riots in 1947 despite it being a time of real austerity?

    And arguably two of the largest acts of violent protest seen in the UK occurred during strikes by the NUM – at Saltley in 1972 and at Orgreave in 1984. Where do they fit in?

    Isnt it more likely that the riots are linked to economic cycles (in which demographics will doubtless play a part), in particular periods of economic transformation and hence insecurity?

  • It’s interesting but it could simply suggest that young people are more likely to react to real and perceived injustices.which brings them into conflict with law and order, Or it could just be the result of bad policies.. There were also pole tax riots.
    A lot of conservative thinkers have a bee in their bonnet about baby boomers

  • What may throw this argument is the percentage of the rioters that were born in this country during those peak times, or were the peak times universal ?

  • It doesn't add up... 16th Aug '11 - 4:00pm

    Nice theory, but it omits the now important influence of immigration on the age distribution of the population (this was irrelevant until this century). Look here:


    and you will see that the latest bulge is aged 25/26 at its mode a year ago, so they should have rioted 5-6 years ago. If they understood what the Labour government was doing at the time it might have been understandable if they did.

    Willetts’ book needs reading with a very critical eye: he starts with his conclusions and then presents the facts that support them with incomplete and inaccurate analyses. Prime example: he tells us baby boomers have wonderful pensions before a single one reached 65 to find the funds are bare having been raided by Gordon, and their pensions will now be under-indexed – it is the preceding generation that have had the benefit.

  • It doesn't add up... 16th Aug '11 - 4:45pm

    I would add that on the Willetts theory we should have had riots in 1940/41.

    It is instructive to see the effect of immigration on the population age structure:


  • Keith Browning 16th Aug '11 - 6:24pm

    I taught in a large secondary school through the bulge of the late 1970s, caused by the 1964 peak. The school had ten form entry and then went to twelve and for one year thirteen form entry. The pressure on everything was immense and playgound and playing field space was taken up by mobile classrooms. Discipline became more difficult to maintain as all the extra kids tried to move around the same building.

    I left as the peak was passed and I returned there as a visitor when it was back to ten form entry. It had reverted to its previous pleasant environment.

    Its not rocket science that population bulges have an effect on those most directly affected. The tension builds as they have to fight a lttle more for their share of everything.

    As the world population grows fighting for voice, space and your fair share will become an increasing problem.

    You only have to look at the University fees issue to see the problem in microcosm. Wait till its about food and shelter.

  • I’ve heard it all now! It seems that the Liberal Democrats and the Tories will clutch at any straws to avoid their responsibility for the mess that is happening on their watch!

  • post hoc ergo propter hoc?

  • Liberal Neil 16th Aug '11 - 7:46pm

    2032, surely?

  • Keith Browning 16th Aug '11 - 8:25pm

    So there are people who are politicians or claim to be interested in politics who dont think population size is relevant.

    I’m speechless?

    Perhaps its why Human Geography should be a compulsory subject for all politicians.

  • Predicting events on the basis of people’s date of birth has more to do with astrology than geography.

  • Mack, it’s to do with an understanding of human behaviour which is part of human geography. People’s behaviour tends to vary depending on age. People, and especially men, in their late teens and early twenties don’t behave like full adults. They’ve typically yet to calm down but they’re now ‘adults’ and so are generally independent from the moderating influence of their parents. In years when there are an above average number of people at this age, civil disorder will be greater.

    What’s interesting is that although the 1990 peak was smaller, the riots were bigger and more widespread in 2011 suggesting their are other factors.

  • Richard Turner 18th Aug '11 - 9:15am

    Don’t make your prediction any more accurate, as this could get you 4 years in gaol.

  • walter lynsdale 18th Aug '11 - 9:53am

    malthusian logic is solid.
    too many people competing for resources = riots, war etc
    easy to understand

  • @Charles

    “What’s interesting is that although the 1990 peak was smaller, the riots were bigger and more widespread in 2011 suggesting their are other factors.”

    Precisely — nothing to do with the dates of birth at all and more to do with economic and social policies.

    “People, and especially men, in their late teens and early twenties don’t behave like full adults. They’ve typically yet to calm down but they’re now ‘adults’ and so are generally independent from the moderating influence of their parents.”

    So why were so many who took part in August’s public disorder in older age groups? Willets’s hypothesis doesn’t stack up because the cohorts in every “riot” were so mixed in terms of age. Absolute tosh. But Liberal Democrats and the Tories are making such a mess of things they will seek any justification to abnegate responsibility for their disastrous policies. What next? The riots were caused by sunspots?

  • Spelling correction: “Willetts’s hypothesis”

  • I presume that Willetts is familiar with the axiom ” All generalisations are false, and that’s a generalisation?”

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