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Aging Across Borders: How We Age Around the World

How society shapes our golden years.

Key points

  • Eastern collectivism and Western individualism impact our views on aging and how elderly people are treated.
  • Religious and moral values have led to cultural differences in perception of aging.
  • The rise of urbanization and capitalism have acted as catalysts towards individualism and nuclear families.

This post was written by Alison Fernandes, Research Affiliate at the Department of Psychology, Monk Prayogshala.

Raychan/Unsplash

The process of aging is universal. It happens to every human being regardless of culture.

However, the way we perceive and experience aging can vary greatly across contexts. In some cultures, aging and the elderly are revered, while in other cultures, aging can be associated with negative stereotypes and discrimination.

According to the UN, the world’s population of people aged 65 and over is the fastest-growing section of the population compared to all other age groups. Population aging has broad implications for housing, social protection, and family structures. Therefore understanding how culture influences our perception of aging can determine whether we're likely to foster respect for the elderly or cause neglect and marginalization.

When it comes to differences between the East and the West, one major cultural difference is Eastern collectivism vs. Western individualism. Social psychologist Geert Hofstede developed cultural dimensions theory, which states that a society’s cultural dimensions can impact the values of its people, thereby also influencing their behavior. These cultural dimensions represent fundamental differences in how societies and individuals relate to one another.

In cultures characterized by collectivism, such as many Asian cultures (e.g., China, Japan, and South Korea), there is a strong emphasis on maintaining group harmony and cohesion. The well-being of the group (family, community, or society) often takes precedence over individual desires.

Contrarily, in individualistic cultures, such as those in North America and parts of Europe, there is a strong emphasis on personal autonomy and individual freedom. People are encouraged to pursue their own goals and desires. Individualism places a premium on independence and self-reliance. While relationships are important, there is less emphasis on interdependence, and individuals are encouraged to be self-sufficient.

In the context of the elderly, we might find that in Eastern cultures it is expected that the younger generations will care for the elderly, with many believing that it is their duty to do so. As such, the elderly tend to be cared for at home, with many of them living with their children or some other young relative. On the other hand, in countries like the U.S., residential communities for the elderly referred to as "retirement communities" are common, with many elderly people opting to live there.

However, what is interesting to note is that just because younger generations care for the elderly at home, this does not necessarily translate into them having a positive attitude about aging itself. While a common assumption would be that Western cultures have a more negative attitude toward older adults and Eastern cultures have a more positive attitude, research has found mixed results.

One reason could be that a group’s cultural beliefs may differ at the individual level. An Asian person living in a collectivistic culture may have more individualistic values. Another reason could be that in collectivistic cultures, while many consider caring for the elderly their duty, this may be due to societal norms and cultural expectations. Collectivistic cultures also emphasize social conformity. Therefore, a person might care for the aging at home simply because it is their duty and not because they are motivated by their cultural values.

Another cultural difference in our perception of aging is dependent on our conceptions of aging itself. Western cultures tend to have more youth-centered societies that place more inherent value on young adults than on the elderly. This may be derived from Western religious beliefs, such as the Protestant ethic, in which an individual’s value was rooted in their ability to work hard and be efficient because worldly success was interpreted as a sign of eternal salvation.

On the other hand, in Eastern cultures, we have ideologies that promote a more positive view of aging where respect for elders is expected. This could be from Confucian values prominent in China, the importance of filial piety in Buddhism, or the tradition of the joint family in India, where the elderly are considered bastions of knowledge.

Georg Arthur Pflueger/Unsplash

In today’s day and age, we find that the mix of urbanization, higher living costs, and cultural adaptations due to increased interconnectedness globally are leading to a shift from such joint family systems where the elderly live at home to more institutional-based care systems. In addition, the rise of capitalism has once again pushed us to place more importance on the individual’s ability to contribute to society, leading to a rise in age-based stereotypes. Thus, we are once again seeing a change in our perceptions of aging and elderly care as our society and culture evolve.

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