Historical and Cultural Perspectives

An aging society, defined as a society in which the population of older individuals is increasing relative to the population of younger individuals, presupposes that individuals can be separated into meaningful categories of old and young. Although contemporary Western society tends to conceive of youth, adolescence, middle age, and old age as unique life stages with distinct sets of problems, this perspective is hardly universal. Indeed, present conceptions of the life course are a relatively recent phenomenon. Thomas Cole traces the metaphor of life's stages to the cities of northern Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, where the current life-stage metaphor first emerged. Picturing life as a series of ordered stages represents the life course as in conformity with the order of the universe and makes it possible for every individual to "step outside of his own life experiences and view it as a whole" (Cole, p. 25).

Just as society's recognition of aging reflects historical and cultural traditions, so society's beliefs about the meaning and value of old age bespeak historical and cultural heritage. The social rank of elderly persons varies during different historical and culture periods, depending upon the perceived cost of supporting older age groups and the contribution they are thought to make (Amoss and Harrell). For example, the Akamba people of Africa believe that "the older a person becomes, the more intricately interwoven that person becomes in the lives of others, and the greater the damage done if that person is removed. At the same time, the older person has wisdom—a perspective on life that comes only with age—which is considered to be a particularly important social resource" (Kilner, p. 19). By contrast, U.S. society has traditionally valued "pragmatism, action, power, and the vigor of youth over contemplation, reflection, experience and the wisdom of age" (Butler, p. 243); hence, ageism (age discrimination) is especially evident in U.S. society.

Despite different cultural conceptions of aged persons and their role in society, anthropologists identify common biological and cultural features of aging. Thus, every known society has "a named category of people who are old— chronologically, physiologically, or generationally. In every case these people have different rights, duties, privileges, and burdens from those enjoyed or suffered by their juniors" (Amoss and Harrell, p. 3). This suggests that people in culturally distinct societies may face similar ethical questions concerning relationships among people of different ages.


SEE ALSO: Chronic Illness and Chronic Care; Future Generations, Reproductive Technologies and Obligations to; Healthcare Resources, Allocation of; Human Dignity; International Health; Justice; Life, Quality of; Long-Term Care; Natural Law; Population Ethics; Right to Die, Policy and Law; Women, Historical and Cross-Cultural Perspectives; and other Aging and the Aged subentries

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