So what is the biggest challenge facing Florida in this century? There are many possible answers, including: global warming, drinking water, economic growth and opportunity, immigration. And the list goes on.
The state's major challenge, in my view, is building a strong and healthy Florida and creating "one out of the many" who choose to live here.
For the first half of the 20th century, Floridians had a clear sense of themselves and their state. But it was not a society we would want to replicate — Floridians were racially polarized and the state struggled to provide a future for its residents.
Since World War II, Florida has changed dramatically, first being discovered by Northerners and then by Hispanics. For the past 40 years, people have arrived in extraordinary numbers, but they have also departed for other places in very large numbers. From 2000 to 2010 alone, 2.8 million people moved into Florida, despite the Great Recession. But an estimated 900,000 also departed during that time.
Today, as a result of this demographic upheaval, 48 percent of Floridians were born in another state, 19 percent in a foreign country, and 33 percent in Florida. The percentage of native-born is the lowest in the nation, while the percentage of foreign-born among the highest.
Is it any wonder that Floridians lack a sense of community, a mythic identity, and a knowledge of the state's past?
Finding ways to bridge the ethnic, age, and racial divisions and to develop a citizenry that is informed, engaged, and has an appreciation of what it means to be a Floridian is difficult at best in this highly mobile society.
For those seniors who reside only half the year in Florida, understanding the problems facing the state and its young families does not come easy. Seniors will remain the single most influential group of voters for the foreseeable future, and their numbers will be bolstered by the generation of baby boomers, those born from 1946 to 1964, who choose to settle in Florida. The challenge facing Florida is to engage these seniors, many of whom are part-time residents, in ways that will encourage them to look beyond their self-interest to the welfare of others and the state.
Further complicating this situation, seniors are overwhelmingly white, while young families are increasingly of color. Approximately 77 percent of those over 65 are white, compared to 13.3 percent for Hispanics and 7.38 percent for African-Americans in 2012. This age and ethnic divide does not lend itself to addressing respective concerns and needs.
For immigrant groups, especially those in this hemisphere, the ability to move back and forth has been made easy through air travel, and it has, in turn, complicated the development of a cohesive citizenry. Most Hispanics have arrived in the last two decades and their identity remains principally with their homeland and with people from their homeland who have moved to Florida.
What seems certain about Florida's immediate future is that, as the Great Recession eases its grip, population growth, dominated by the baby boom migration and Hispanic immigration, will reassert itself and shape the state for much of this century.
Florida's complex racial, ethnic and age diversity, together with its dramatic demographic changes, promises to compound further its lack of identity and to make consensus on public policy difficult. Carl Hiaasen says of Floridians that they are unpredictable because they don't know or remember the past. But it is not just senior citizens who are memory-challenged. In a state as dynamic as Florida, where change is a daily occurrence and where traditions find little traction, Floridians struggle to find community.
While diversity of this sort is a tremendous obstacle to building community and achieving understanding, diversity has also enabled the state to compete globally and to be enriched by the diverse cultures immigrants have brought with them.
The task confronting the state is how to preserve the benefits of diversity and also find ways to draw us closer so that we can forge a meaningful future together. We need to start that conversation.
David R. Colburn is the interim director of the Bob Graham Center for Public Service at the University of Florida and author of "From Yellow Dog Democrats to Red State Republicans." He can be reached at email@example.com He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.