Quick test: Which of the following is false?

  • The average American's lifespan is nearly 80 years.
  • The average large American corporation's lifespan is between 20 and 50 years, depending on the source.
  • Dinosaurs still exist and can be seen roaming throughout Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, and Rhode Island.

You didn't hear about the T-Rex in Pawtucket?
Oh, OK, we'll fess up: Dinosaurs remain extinct. Which means that an average American outlives an average large-sized American corporation by a factor of two or more.

Two years ago, we wrote a column advocating that investors look for companies with the following four characteristics:

  • Built to last for 100 years or more.
  • Little-known, yet dominating their growing industries.
  • Steered by committed management teams.
  • Governed by the highest corporate values.

Little did we realize just how preposterous it is that companies would be built for "100 years or more"! In fact, according to Arie de Geus, author of The Living Company, "a full one-third of the companies listed in the 1970 Fortune 500 … had vanished by 1983 -- acquired, merged, or broken to pieces."

Professor Jeremy Siegel's meticulously researched book The Future for Investors studied the original firms of the S&P 500, which was put together in 1957. Of those 500 firms, Siegel found, just 25% survived intact to 2003! Over that 46-year span, the other 75% (fully 375 companies) went bankrupt, merged, or were taken private.

That's our advice: Invest in unicorns and sasquatches
This doesn't invalidate our earlier advice -- that you should look to invest in businesses built to last for 100 years or more. If you can do that, after all, you'll align yourself with managers who are thinking long term rather than short term.

It does, however, make an elite group of U.S. businesses stand out even more -- for one shared trait that is almost as unbelievable as unicorns and sasquatches. Before we get to that trait, let's look at that List of Five:

  • Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG). Has been paying dividends without interruption since 1890.
  • 3M (NYSE:MMM). In February, 3M raised its dividend for the 51st consecutive year.
  • Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO). This year, raised its dividend payout for the 47th year in a row.
  • Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ). Raised its dividend for the 46th straight year in 2008.
  • Johnson Controls (NYSE:JCI). Has paid dividends to shareholders since 1887.

These five businesses have far surpassed the average -- each dates back at least 80 years. Even more impressive: Each has been paying a dividend for more than half a century.

We've written a lot about global stocks lately, but if you're a gun-shy investor looking for stocks on which to build your retirement foundation, dividend stocks are a vital arrow in your quiver.

Here's why
The benefit of dividends to shareholders is clear: You get paid cash each and every year regardless of whether the underlying stock is up, down, or indifferent. Furthermore, you can pocket that cash or use it to buy more shares of stock. Dividends, however, also have a benefit to the companies that pay them, and we think it's no coincidence that these long-lasting companies are all dividend payers.

That's because dividends -- and the need to be consistent in paying them once a company starts paying them -- force companies to be responsible with their cash. In fact, a recent paper by Douglas Skinner and Eugene Soltes of the University of Chicago found that dividend-paying companies have better earnings quality than their non-dividend-paying peers, and that "dividend-payers are less likely to report losses" [emphasis added]. And because companies only go out of business when they start losing money, it's clear that companies that don't lose money won't go out of business.

So, there's one little secret when you're seeking companies that are being built to last 100 years: Look for stocks that pay dividends.

It's not all joy in Dividend-ville
Of course, there are no sure things, and that's just as true with longtime dividend payers as it is in the NCAA tournament (nice job, Wake Forest). Even worse, the current economic downturn has forced a number of former "dividend dynasties" to cut or even do away with their dividends -- General Electric (NYSE:GE) and Bank of America (NYSE:BAC) are two high-profile examples. Thus, it's as critical now as ever to carefully scrutinize any stock you choose to invest in and diversify your portfolio broadly across a collection of superior companies.

If you're interested in doing just that, click here to join our Motley Fool Income Investor service free for 30 days. The dividend fiends there run a model portfolio of their top dividend stock ideas, and with yields creeping up recently as the stock market has dropped, their hunting grounds are as fertile as ever.

Join up and you'll enjoy immediate access to their six "buy first" dividend payers.

Brian Richards and Tim Hanson both own shares of 3M, but no other companies mentioned. 3M and Coca-Cola are Motley Fool Inside Value recommendations. Johnson & Johnson and P&G are Income Investor picks. The Motley Fool owns shares of P&G. The Fool's disclosure policy loves Dubuque, Iowa.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.