Granted statehood in 1818, Illinois is slightly over two centuries old. During that time, in approximately fifty-year segments, our state has embodied trends that defined our nation. The early 1880s brought westward expansion by European migrants and the taking of natives’ land. The second half of that century saw a population explosion and rapid urbanization. In the first part of the twentieth century, Illinois industrialization was essential to helping our nation win two world wars and establishing the United States as the pre-eminent world power.
Most recently, a new half-century period can be identified. One of profound social and economic change for the state. No longer was Illinois on an endless growth trajectory. Residents shifted their preference to live in one part of the state or another, leaving rural areas for urban and suburban places, including those not in Illinois. The typical Illinoisan looks different: new communities of African Americans, Asians, and Latinos have appeared. Politically, there is a growing divide among the state’s internal regions.
These are all profound shifts, and each deserves exploration to understand where our state is going. In this essay, I try to sketch out some of the broad transformations that we are experiencing in our state. On the one hand, I provide a snapshot of where we are today and how we compare to some of our neighbors, but I spend more time on how we have become a different state over the last half-century and how much of our evolution may not be positive for the state as a whole.