The Strength of Demographic and Generational History

Political history, and perhaps even mythic history, dominates much of what most people know about the past. Social, cultural and economic history may appear in history classes, often bringing emphases on issues of gender and ethnic difference. However, there are a few different types of history that, as far as I can tell, rarely receive any thought or mention in common courses or in the public sphere: One of them is demographic history, and another is generational history.

First of all, demographics have played a powerful role in human development and the dynamics of our world today. Some societies on different continents developed agriculture as far back as ten thousand years ago. Ever since, it's thought that these sorts of farming peoples have in general persecuted and driven out hunters and gathers. Remember, humanity had thousands of years of history that we often never think about, and in those millennia there was a whole lot of movement, conflict, destruction, assimilation, ascendance and decline. Some people (like the Basques, perhaps) may be descendants of these ancient marginalized peoples, but there is much that remains unknown or even unknowable (and it's certainly unknown to me).

In the last 500 years, the most dramatic cases of demographic collapse and conquest took place in the Americas. At least tens of millions of people lived in the Americas before the arrival of foreign diseases from the 15th century onward brought waves of destruction that likely fanned out across the continent far faster than any Europeans explored. "To decimate" means to kill one in ten, so these diseases (like smallpox) were actually the inverse of decimation: perhaps 80-90% of many Native American populations were wiped out, and epidemics occurred repeatedly over the centuries, destroying, crippling, or irrevocably changing indigenous societies as they had existed. Over the same course of time, many people from new continents arrived, bringing with them alien species, both domesticated and wild. While Natives may still have controlled the majority of North America in 1800, today they make up about 3% of the United States' population and perhaps 4% of Canada's. While politics, culture and economics may explain much of the history of indigenous marginalization, one of its essential drivers - perhaps the most essential - was demography. Human history without smallpox would be history without a European-majority North America.

In addition to driving many big-picture aspects of history, demography is important even on the smallest level. It includes not just ethnicity, but also gender and age, and these factors influence all sorts of things, from neighborhoods to schools to cities to states - their governments, their attitudes, their actions and their futures. In Alaska, for example, Natives still make up around 15% of the population, and much more in rural areas. One can almost envision a sort of long-term competition ongoing, between Natives and non-Natives, to see how the balance of demographic power might change in the future. However, Alaska is also characterized by divisions between urban and rural areas, and between its highly distinct regions. (There are six or perhaps seven commonly accepted regions in Alaska, each unique enough to be a world unto itself.) Changes in demography go on everywhere, and they're going on constantly, the shifts in demographic power subtle and often unnoticed.

Then there's generational history. In some ways this is a more tangible process than demographic change: After all, anyone can notice how different they are from their parents and grandparents, and how different their children are from them. The problem, however, is that most people don't extrapolate this process to broader historical trends: They think that cultures and societies change only through interaction with others, or because of outside factors and events. In fact, cultures and societies change constantly, with or without those influences; they change with the passing of every generation, through the natural tendency of no two people to ever be the same. Even when tradition is preserved in the most rigorous fashion possible, new children will always have at least a few different perspectives and a few different experiences than their parents. In this way, too, history is made.

In the United States, people are relatively familiar with our names for current generations: In order from youngest to oldest, they're Generation Y, Generation X, the Baby Boomers, the Silent Generation and the Greatest Generation. In general, each generation is defined by certain highly influential trends or experiences that went on during the children's youth. Reversing the order, those experiences for each generation would be the Great Depression, World War II, the Civil Rights era, the late Cold War, and finally the War on Terror (my generation - Y). Of course, these sorts of categories are not entirely what generational history is about: The point is not so much that different generations have different experiences, but rather that different generations - and of course, different individuals - can change history in very different ways.

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