Otis Cliatt is 73 and hopes to make it to 100. Ginger Hallowell is 81 and thinks 90 will be long enough on this Earth.
“I’ve done what I need to and I’ve had a long and productive life,” said Hallowell, a former model and Weeki Wachee mermaid.
Neither has any desire to live to 120. Both belong to the majority of Americans who, given the chance, would rather not live to the end line of human existence, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project.
Fifty-six percent said if they had a choice to undergo a medical treatment that would allow them to live to 120, they would decline. More than half said extending longevity to such a degree would be bad for society.
“We saw a number of people mention overpopulation as a concern,” said Cary Funk, the study’s senior researcher.
Proponents of “radical life extension” – the science, technology and theory of living to the extreme limits of human life – boldly predict that by the year 2050, the average American will live 120 years. So far, the oldest verifiable person was Jeanne Calment, who died in 1997 at the age of 122.
But extreme longevity would affect everything from the environment to the workforce to the economy. It would redefine the meaning of young, middle age and old. Retirement at 65 would become obsolete.
“It has far-reaching implications for how we live,” Funk said.
Nonetheless, the idea of stretching the limits of a lifetime has some appeal – particularly among people who are young, black and/or Hispanic. All three groups had 40 percent or more who said they would like to live to be 120.
Kayla Arocho, a 20-year-old student who is Hispanic, said she would like to live to be 135: “How the world is now, everybody thinks it’s so bad. So I’d like to see how much the world would change.”
Blacks and Hispanics are most likely to hope they reach 100, and have a more positive view of the future, the study found.
Cindy Epiphane, a 36-year-old black woman, said a longer life would give her a better chance of obtaining her dreams of an MBA and law degree.
She’d like to make it at least to 100, but is concerned about the possibility of outliving her money.
“If I could afford it and not rely on anybody else, yeah, I’d like to do that,” said Epiphane, who works at a college recruitment kiosk in a mall.
And that’s where the futuristic idea of near-immortality meets the practicality of a longer life. Instead of retiring in your 60s, extended longevity might mean working until you are 80 or 90.
“It’s easy to say I want to live forever, but we better think of all the ramifications,” said Rabbi Rick Sherwin, 62, head of Congregation Beth Am in Longwood, Fla. “If I don’t retire until I’m 90, what about all those graduates of the rabbinical seminaries? They don’t get jobs because I’m holding onto my job forever.”
Those least enamored with extending life another couple of decades are the old and the evangelical. Only 31 percent of those 65 and older, and 28 percent of white evangelicals, would like to live to 120.
Northland Church Pastor Joel Hunter belongs to both groups. For many Christians, death isn’t something to delay, deny and postpone. It’s when everlasting life begins, he said.
“With Christians, we think heaven sounds pretty good to us. It has to be worth avoiding heaven,” said Hunter, 65. “I think I am at my prime in terms of wisdom and the best use of my time and leadership. But I have no desire to live beyond the age when I can contribute to somebody’s life.”
Paul Cyr, at 84, also said he has no desire to live to 120.
“The amount of money it takes to survive, I don’t have the facilities to support myself,” said Cyr, who was pitching horseshoes at Orlando’s Beardall Senior Center with his two buddies. “If they don’t have horseshoes in heaven, I’m not going.”
Life shouldn’t be measured in years, but in fulfilling the purpose of being here in the first place, said Orlando Catholic Diocese Bishop John Noonan. More decades added to an empty, sad or disappointing life is no reward.
“Life is something to value and celebrate, but it is to be used for a higher purpose in the context of our journey toward life after death,” said Noonan, 62.
Significantly extending the lifespan of humans could challenge our fundamental understanding of what it means to be human, religious leaders told Pew researchers.
“Our mortality defines us. It influences virtually all of our decisions,” said David Masci, a senior Pew researcher who dealt with the religious implications of radical life extension.
Masci said leaders from all different faiths questioned whether extreme longevity would upend the concept of marriage for life, the definition of family and the relationships between generations.
Pope Benedict XVI addressed those concerns in 2010 when he preached on the prospect of adding decades to the human lifespan.
“Humanity would become extraordinarily old, there would be no more room for youth,” he said. “Capacity for innovation would die, and endless life would be no paradise, if anything a condemnation.”
Nearly 70 percent of adults in the Pew study said they would like to live somewhere between 79 and 100 years old. That includes Beardall Senior Center manager Cheryl Rainsberger, who is 53.
“I think 90,” she said. “I still see 90-year-olds dancing.”