Multi generational handsA baby born in 1900 in the United States had a life expectancy of 47.3 years. For male babies, the number was slightly lower: 46.3 years. For females, it was 48.3 years.

Flash forward 110 years. A U.S. baby born in 2010 has a life expectancy of 78.7 years. Again, somewhat less for males, 76.2 years, and a bit more for females, 81 years.

What accounts for that amazing increase in longevity between our grandparents’ generation and today’s?  Credit modern science and updated sensitivity to health threats that in grandpa’s day went largely ignored.

The big factor is 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.

Too, 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 healthier, 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, for the first time, Americans are experiencing a historic demographic shift: Four full generations in relatively good health living side by side.  I wish those advances had happened sooner. I lost my grandparents in their mid- to late 60s. But it was better for my parents’ generation. They lived into their 80s. I wonder what it would have been like having them all together, with my own children constituting the fourth generation?

I’ll never know. But I hope to experience it from the other end. With my oldest granddaughter having just turned 15, I expect to live to bounce her and her brothers’ children on my knee and teach them to play Pick-Up-Stix and Monopoly. Mine is among the first of the four-generation families. But we are far from alone. With expanded life spans, a four-generation family increasingly is becoming the norm.

The number of U.S. persons 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 in the U.S.

In fact, Florida already is a model of the demographic reality the nation will face in 40 years. There are currently 3.3 million Floridians age 65-plus living in the Sunshine State – 18 percent of the population, and over 500,000 of them are over 85. Pinellas County’s age demographics are even more tilted to graying: 21.5 percent of its population is 65 or older, and 4 percent is over 85-plus.

We’ll be exploring 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 this Institute and the 4Generations Institute of Tallahassee.

The program will be from 7-9 p.m. in the Digitorium of the SPC Seminole Campus, 9200 113th Street N. Advance registration is requested at .

My long-time friend, Jack Levine, will lead the conversation, directing questions to a panel of six local experts from organizations that serve the four generational groups. Jack, who spent 25 years advocating for children as head of Voices for Florida’s Children, began to realize that needs in each group are going unmet while potential resources are going to waste. Younger children are struggling with reading and math.

Retirees who realize they can play only so much golf and tennis become bored. Teens are looking for opportunities to gain public service credits. Young singles have time – and the desire – to give back. The elderly waste away in assisted living facilities with no one looking out for them. Working adults find themselves sandwiched between raising children and caring for elderly parents.

“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,” says Jack. “How we address the needs of the four generations is among the most critical economic and public policy challenges for the next decade.”

I am excited by the potential for inter-generational 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. Let the conversation begin!

David Klement
Executive Director
Institute for Strategic Policy Solutions