Column: When four generations connect, we all benefit

Published May 30 2014
Updated May 30 2014

A baby born in 1900 in the United States had a life expectancy of 47.3 years. When the Social Security Act became law in 1935, the U.S. life expectancy was 62 years.

Flash forward to this century. A U.S. baby born in 2010 has a life expectancy of 78.7 years.

The number of people in the United States age 65 and over has increased from 4 million in 1900 to 40 million in 2010. The number of people living to 85 and over went from near-zero in 1900 to 600,000 at the turn of the century. In 2010, there were 55,000 Americans age 100 or more, and by 2050, demographers project that there will be half a million centenarians.

Florida is a model of the demographic reality the nation will face in 40 years. There are 3.3 million Floridians age 65-plus, 18 percent of the population. More than 500,000 residents are over 85. In Pinellas County, 21.5 percent of the population is 65 or older.

Our society is riding a huge age wave. What accounts for that amazing increase in longevity between our grandparents' generation and today's?

The big factors are advances in medicine — pharmaceuticals, medical procedures and devices like pacemakers — that help patients survive what formerly would have been fatal ailments. Eradication of diseases that often proved fatal to children boosted the number, as did progress in obstetrics, childbirth and childhood immunizations.

In addition, more awareness of workplace hazards and a proactive approach to risk management in recent decades made life safer for those who survived to adulthood. Machinery is safer, work environments are healthier nutritional practices are better and smoking has been demonized. Better understanding of healthy living habits has enabled many born after 1900 stay alive longer and to stay healthier than previous generations.

As a result, Americans are experiencing a historic demographic shift: four full generations in relatively good health living side by side. The four-generation family is becoming the norm.

It is our view that the needs for health care, education, family services, employment, public safety and environmental protection are best addressed through the lens of our four major age groups. How we address the needs of the four generations is among the most critical economic and public policy challenges for the next decade.

We will explore how those four generations — children, parents, grandparents and super-elders — can live in harmony and mutual support at a Community Conversation on June 17. The program, titled "Our Families' Four Generations: Ready or Not, Here We Are!" is sponsored by the Tampa Bay Times and jointly hosted by the St. Petersburg College's Institute for Strategic Policy Solutions and the 4Generations Institute. The conversation will be from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. in the Digitorium of the SPC Seminole Campus, 9200 113th Street N in Seminole, It is free and open to the public, but advance registration is required at

Six local experts representing community organizations that serve the four generational groups will present their perspectives on both the challenges we face and the opportunities our multigenerational society offers in community connections and innovative programs. Audience members will be given the opportunity to share their ideas and opinions.

Some examples of proposed connections: Young children can benefit from reading tutors. Foster youth are in need of mentors. Teens are looking for opportunities to gain public service credits and positive work experience. Young singles and couples have some time — and a great desire — to give back and make a difference. Retirees realize they can play only so much golf and tennis before they need additional activities to share their energies and interests. Friendly visitors can be recruited for our elders who feel isolated in assisted living facilities and nursing homes.

The benefits of connecting the generations represent an opportunity worthy of investment.

We are excited by the potential for intergenerational cooperation that could come from this initiative.

If all of the unused resources of time and energy among the generations were channeled into assisting the needy, lonely and imperiled, it would represent a seismic shift in societal well-being.