ncesAn Overview of Aging and Existing Cultural Differences
Society predetermines a specific life course for each person of their community. Missing any stage of this course is detrimental to the development of the human life. But not all societies have these stages of life; ergo different cultures define stages differently.
The stages of the life course are childhood, adolescence, adulthood, young adulthood and middle adulthood, old age and death. Society thinks of childhood as the first twelve years of life. In most cultures it is known as the time of autonomy from the weight of the grown-up world. But in other societies, such as Taiwan and Indonesia, childhood is seen as another occasion to send someone to work. The children do not have a normal childhood life of playing house and Barbie’s; instead they are in factories making shoes for approximately fifty cents an hour. In our society, our concept of childhood is grounded in significant biological differences that set the young from the old’ (Macionis & Gerber, 2002).
The next stage of the life course is adolescence. This is the time where kids are in between childhood and adulthood. The preteen and teenage years comprise the stage of life when young people establish some independence and learn specialized skills required for adulthood (Macionis & Gerber, 2002). Adolescence is related with social and emotional confusion; young people have conflicts with their parents, and try to develop their own sense of identity. Adolescence is a product of culture. A study that was done in the 1920’s by Margaret Mead on the Samoan Islands shows that there was little stress among teenagers; their children appeared to move easily into adult standing. Our society, however, defines childhood and adulthood more in opposing terms, making transition between the two stages of life more difficult (Macionis ; Gerber, 2002). The experience of adolescence also varies according to social standing and background.
Following adolescence comes adulthood which is made up of young adulthood and middle adulthood. Adulthood is the period during which most of life’s accomplishments typically occur, including pursuing careers and raising families’ (Macionis ; Gerber, 2002). Young adulthood goes from age twenty to about age forty. This is generally a time of engaging in many goals set earlier in life. Middle adulthood goes from age forty to about age sixty. This is a time when people reflect on what they have been able to accomplish, perhaps with great satisfaction or with the realization that many of the dreams of their youth will never come true. The experiences those go through during adulthood are different from culture to culture. In most societies it is considered common for young adults to break free of parents and learn to manage for themselves a host of day-to-day responsibilities. However, it is common in countries like Japan to find extended families with up to three generations living together’ (AFS, 2000). Also in many societies death does not usually occur during adulthood, but rather during old age. Though in countries like Zimbabwe and Malawi individuals do not get to live a long adulthood since the life expectancy is thirty-eight years’ (Rosenberg, 2000).
Old age is the last stage of life itself, beginning in about the mid-sixties. This final phase of the life course differs in an important way from the earlier stages. It is a time when you leave roles that provided both satisfaction and social identity. Once again those in this stage of life, experience old age differently from culture to culture. Old age is normally a time for retirement. Elderly men in Japan however, are more likely than their counterparts in North America to remain in the labor force, and in many Japanese corporations, the oldest employees enjoy the greatest respect’ (Macionis & Gerber, 2002). The percentage of the Japanese population that consists of elderly people is the highest in the world and it continues to grow. This is why there are more problems concerning elderly welfare in Japan than in other societies such as Canada. Their medical treatment system, taxation system, and social security are not set up properly for the aging individuals in Japan’ (Masud, 1999).
Death is something, that if not caused by disease or accident, it occurs during the end of old age. For most cultures such as Canada the average life span is seventy-seven years. However, as mentioned above some cultures, such as Zimbabwe, have a life span of only thirty-eight years so they experience death at a sooner time than others. Today most cultures have been viewing death more openly, and the trend is to view dying as preferable to painful or prolonged suffering in hospitals or at home’ (Macionis & Gerber, 2002). Therefore these cultures are death accepting which teach us that death is something to be welcomed. Although, there are cultures such as the Hindu culture that are death defying and maintain that death does not exist. Therefore death is viewed differently from culture to culture.
Aging is multidimensional construct that is defined differently from one culture to the next. Old age may be viewed as a positive stage of ones life or it may be looked at with a negative connotation. Depending on ones culture, ideas about aging and “growing old” may be different for men and women.
In Canada growing old is not associated with positive images of beautiful women or handsome men. Growing old often is associated with wrinkles, grey hair, and decreases in physical abilities. The North American culture is a prime example of how women, more so then men, are overly concerned with “looking young” or finding the fountain of youth. The mass media could be to blame for the overindulgence of cosmetic products, surgical procedures such as facelifts, and “fad” diets by women. Similar to Canada, Asian countries are becoming more and more westernized and adapting western ideals of beauty and importance, which is associated with youth and not old age.
On the other hand, Japan is considered to be a culture that values their elderly citizens; whereas Canadians usually consider the elderly a burden to society. In particular, elderly Japanese men are more likely to stay in the labor force and are given the greatest respect. In contrast, elderly Canadian men are less likely to stay in the labor force and are usually faced with giving up a large measure of their social importance (Macionis & Gerber 2002). Traphagan (2000) showed how elderly Japanese men are not only praised by their society because of their social positions but Traphagan (2000) also suggests that power is more concentrated in the hands of the male instead of the woman.
Gender differences in the Canadian culture are also evident when examining the income and relative power of senior citizens. Although most elderly people (80%) live above the poverty level, most seniors are faced with a decline of income. Elderly women, in particular, are more likely to be poor than elderly men (Macionis & Gerber, 2002). Gender inequality can also be seen in the Abkhasians culture, which was once part of the Soviet Union. This culture values their elderly and promotes gerontocracy; however, since elderly Abkhasian men have the most wealth and power, the elderly women, although still important to their society, are not always held in such high esteem as the men (Macionis & Gerber, 2002). On the other hand, Aboriginals praise their elders regardless of gender because the elderly are considered the messengers for cultural traditions that are passed to the younger generations.
Social isolation of the elderly also varies from culture to culture and between genders. In Canada, women tend to live longer than men and are more likely than men to live alone in the later years of life. This social isolation faced by elderly women has been reported to produce some mental health problems in elderly women (Macionis & Gerber 2002). On the other hand, the prevalence of depression & dementia in Japan may be lower than in the West, which implies that culture may exert a protective influence (Dein & Huline-Dickens, 1997). Social isolation may be less likely in the Japanese culture because children often live with their elderly parents; whereas in Canada, elderly parents are often housed in nursing homes or assisted living accommodations.
AFS. (2000). Where in the World. Retrieved April 5, 2003, from http://www.afs.org.au/
Dein, S. & Huline-Dickens, S. (1997). Cultural aspects of aging and psychopathology. Aging-and-Mental-Health, 1(2)112-120.
Macionis, J.J & Gerber, L.M (2002). Sociology (4th ed.) Toronto, Ontario: Prentice Hall.
Masud, Chika. (1999) Elderly Welfare in Japan. Retrieved April 5, 2003, from http://user
Rosenberg, Matt. (2000). World Life Expectancy Chart. Retrieved April 5, 2003, from
Traphagan, J.W. (2000). Reproducing elder male power through ritual performance in Japan. Journal of Cross Cultural Gerontology, 15(2)81-97.