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Genealogy in the Future

by Steve Paul Johnson
April 8, 2004

As I poured over microfilms of census forms, land records, death indexes, and other records, trying to find information on my wife's elusive great-great-grandfather, I wondered if a future relative would also consider me an "elusive ancestor".

It seems that concerns over privacy are greater today than ever before, what with the increased popularity of the Internet, identity theft, and the barrage of salespeople calling us and sending us junkmail. Consider also that, each of us is being asked to provide more information, as governments and companies seek to learn more about our habits. This has caused us to become more reluctant in providing information.

There is also a big difference between today's society and the society our ancestors' lived in one hundred to two hundred years ago. These days, the average American family moves into a new home every five years or less. Americans search for jobs not just within their town, but across the entire nation. Our ancestors tended to stay put in the same county their whole lives.

It's easy to believe that future genealogists will have a more difficult time learning about us.

Back in the "old days", when a couple married, they often remained married to each other their whole lives, even if they didn't get along well. Today in the United States, 50% of all marriages end in divorce. In fact, its common for Americans to have been married three or more times.

Out-of-wedlock births seem to reach all-time highs year-after-year. It's common for a mother to have multiple children, each from different fathers, and not have been married to either one of them. Economics has placed an urgency on these mothers to give up their children to adoption, and thus the number of foster home children is on the rise. Increasing drug abuse has increased the number of drug-addicted babies, which often are placed into foster homes.

The secularization of the world seems to unravel the bonds of the family unit. In past decades, religion played an important role in uniting the family, and establishing "family values". Even though people may still see themselves as religious, families seem to worship religion less as a family, and more individually. In my next-door neighbor's house, the husband is not religious, his wife converted to Judaism, and their kids are Christians, but each kid attends a different church.

Genealogists often use tombstone inscriptions to gather information about their ancestors. But the use of cemeteries are becoming more scarce, as their number of available plots diminish, and land values increase. Some of our ancestor's burial grounds are getting plowed under to make room for development. The popularity of cremation suggests that cemeteries and tombstones will become obsolete. According to the Cremation Association of North America, Japan has one of the highest cremation rates, at 97%. Great Britain is at 70%, while Scandinavia is at 65%. The United States is expected to reach 40% by 2010.

Today's "paperless society" also threatens to make genealogy research more difficult. I'm sure many of us have discovered a one-hundred year old document, containing valuable genealogical information, that was stashed away in grandma's attic. Computer data, such as a GEDCOM, doesn't lend itself very easily to being stored away in someone's attic for that long. While digital cameras might allow us to take more pictures, most digital photos don't get printed to paper. When a hard drive crashes, or a CD-ROM degrades, those photos are lost forever.

On the other hand, digital information does have its advantages. As long as there is a person to manage and maintain the information, it could last longer than paper itself, so long as the information is constantly converted to the latest standards. In this way, websites could last forever.

In fact, there are other ways that genealogy research might be easier and faster in the future.

As it stands now, entering someone's name into a search engine, such as Google, can bring up lots of interesting information, provided of course that person has a rather unique name. While search engines also deliver a lot of irrelevant results, they're getting better all the time.

The fact that genealogy has become big business in the United States and among other countries, will actually improve the state of genealogy research. Many people might disagree, or not approve of the idea, but nothing stimulates the advancement of the arts and sciences better than capitalism and free enterprise.

Organizations are collecting more information on us than ever before. Each decade, the U.S. Census Bureau seems to request more information about us. Increasing licensing and registration requirements are creating more records on each of us. Our forefathers didn't have to obtain a license to hunt game, and they didn't have to obtain a driver's license either, since they didn't have cars. Future genealogists will have many more outlets for our personal information.

We're also being tracked and identified more than ever. Our social security numbers are being used as a defacto "personal identification number" used by so many organizations, including credit bureaus and insurance companies. As it stands today, the use of an SSN for genealogy research only helps with recent ancestors. But perhaps another one hundred years from now, it could connect together hundreds of pieces of information from several organizations. Our driver's license number is often used in this way.

In 1996, President Clinton signed into a law that requires the creation of a "Unique Health Identifier for Individuals", which is an identification number that will track our health history from birth to death. The terrorist acts of September 11, 2001 caused some people to call for a similar kind of personal identification number that would help officials identify potential terrorists. While the U.S. government would certainly place security measures to prevent public access to records, it is possible the government could allow public access to records greater than 72 years, similar to its policy with census records.

Advances in DNA studies can now help genealogists find other people with similar ancestry. The Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation has published a database on its website that allows anyone to type in their "genetic marker profile" and learn more about their origins. It's conceivable that this technology could allow future genealogists to find everyone else on the planet related to them.

So while genealogy research might become more difficult than ever, it may actually become more easier than ever. But if you could travel back in time to one hundred years ago, you might find the state of genealogy research to be much different than it is today. It's like that old saying, "the only thing that remains constant is change."

- Steve Paul Johnson
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