Generation 495: the high water-mark of paternalism?

We now move beyond the memory of anyone alive now.

This generation witnessed the ‘scramble for Africa’, in which European nations claimed and bartered as they divided a continent between themselves. The people who were already living there had different ideas however, and not all went smoothly for the colonisers: a few farmers of Dutch descent defeated the British army in South Africa, and the Ethiopians defeated the Italian army in the north.

A curious phenomenon that I don’t understand is that life expectancy rates, already much lower than in the twentieth century, took a dip in 1880. This graph shows the rates. Most families carried the memory of a brother or sister who had died young. Once through early childhood a person could expect to live their full span, unless they became a mother. Childbirth was a dangerous process until the 1930’s, when the chances of surviving childbirth also began to improve.

This world seems a much more stratified place than now. The circumstances a person is born into determine what they can do in their life. If you live in the countryside you tip your hat to the local landlord and make sure you don’t offend him. In the city, if you don’t have money or education then you work in a factory, or in service, or you make your living as you can. The streets have horses and carriages, bicycles and maybe a steam engine. Some large cities have installed electric street lighting and have trams. Basic school education was becoming freely available, even compulsory in some countries. This meant that many people in the western world had a chance to learn to read and write.

Working people had been able to join a trade union for about half a century, and when employers imposed wage cuts they went on strike. These organisations also offered insurance schemes for their members, for when they were sick or lost their job. In the German-speaking world there was the beginning of a state-organised welfare state offering health and unemployment insurance and pensions.

Canned food became widely available in this period.


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