Click the graph below for a time-lapse view of the changes in Alaska’s population.
A “population pyramid” is a graph that shows population data by age and sex, a favorite tool of researchers because these characteristics shed light on an area’s potential workforce, dependent population, and effects of historical events. Combined with data on births and deaths, they also provide information on family size, life expectancy, and migration.
The striking change in the shape of Alaska’s population pyramid reflects massive socioeconomic change over the last 100 years. In 1910, when the “District” of Alaska’s population was just 64,000 and its economic activity was largely from mining and canneries, there were nearly two-and-a-half men to each woman. The skew was largely attributable to non-Natives, and the pattern of increase by age between 1910 and 1930 shows a significant number stayed. Alaska’s population dropped with the end of the gold rush era to 1930, though the Alaska Native population increased from approximately 25,000 in 1910 to 30,000 in 1930, making up more than half the state’s population.
Between 1940 and 1950, World War II and the start of the Cold War had begun to affect Alaska’s population, which increased by more than 75 percent — the most for any period. A large proportion of these residents were 20-to 24-year-old GIs. Men just out of high school remained the largest age group through statehood to 1970, when our nation’s military was built up for the Korean War and then the Vietnam War. Many servicemen would stay in Alaska or return with families.
The construction of the massive Trans-Alaska Pipeline System in the 1970s produced the state’s largest recorded turnover of population. Alaska netted more than 30,000 new residents in a single year (1974-1975), and lost more than 13,000 just three years later. Overall, Alaska gained more than 100,000 people that decade, and by 1980 the age-sex distribution was more like that of the nation — a less skewed male-to-female ratio but still a large proportion of baby boomers who were born between the end of World War II and the early 1960s. The population became more urban, and though the Alaska Native population continued its steady increase, Natives were now just over 15 percent of the state’s population of roughly 400,000.
The pipeline and high oil prices produced huge growth in the 1980s, followed by a dramatic economic downturn when those prices dropped, and finally the start of a recovery. The state gained nearly 150,000 people over the decade, the largest number for any period. While migration played a huge role in the change, so did the shape of the population pyramid. With a large proportion of baby boomers aged 20-39 came an increase in Alaska births and a large generation that is often called the “echo boomers.”
Alaska has continued to transform since 1990, but the change is less tied to individual events. The population has aged with the state’s large proportion of baby boomers. Many echo boomers moved away in the 2000s when they reached college age and are now returning, adding to the state’s population and workforce. The male-to-female ratio has increased again due in part to military buildups since 2000, and the Alaska Native population is now estimated to be as high as 138,000, or 19 percent of the total population.
Alaska has been defined by its booms and busts, but even without them the state has changed greatly. The Alaska of 1910 and the Alaska of 2010 are in ways incomparable, yet the state remains a sparsely settled frontier with a continuously changing population.