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Aging and Its Cultural and Ethnic Factors Essay

One of the most notable aspects of a post-industrial living in today’s world has to do with the fact that, as time goes on, the gerontology-related issues become increasingly acute, in the sociological sense of this word. Such a development appears to have been dialectically predetermined by the essence of demographic dynamics in the West – the birthplace of the term ‘gerontology’. As Schmid, Brandt, and Haberkern (2012) pointed out, “All European societies face demographic aging due to reduced fertility rates and increased longevity” (p. 39).

In its turn, this explains why the recent decade saw the publishing of a number of academic articles, the authors of which strived to explore the previously overlooked aspects of aging in today’s world, in general, and to elaborate on the process’s qualitative specifics, in particular.

In this paper, I will aim to identify the main themes contained in some of the articles that were recommended for reading through the weeks 7-12, to expound on what should be considered these articles’ discursive significance, and to provide a critical evaluation of the would-be found argumentative stances. The main idea that I am going to promote throughout the paper’s entirety is that the aging-related issues cannot be referred to as such that represent the value of a ‘thing in itself’ in the sense of being the legitimate subject of positivist inquiry.

That is, for us to be able to have a better understanding of the significance of aging, we may never cease being thoroughly aware of the effects of the discursive framework (within which the issue is to be discussed) on the discussion’s outcome. In its turn, this framework is defined by the affiliated socio-economic circumstances, as well as by the culturally predetermined qualities of the associated people’s mentality.

Out of the would-be reviewed articles, the one by Biggs and Powell (2001) [A Foucauldian analysis of old age and the power of social welfare] appears to be most closely related to the actual thesis of this paper. The reason for this is apparent – the article’s actual content is concerned with subjecting the issue of aging to the so-called ‘Foucauldian analysis,’ in order to obtain some in-depth insights into what defines the actual philosophy behind the currently deployed (in the West) care-policies, with respect to the elderly.

According to the authors, the foremost characteristic of how the coming of age is being perceived in the West is that, due to being physically incapacitated, the process in question is considered strongly detrimental to one’s existential agenda. As they noted, “In Western culture, the aging body is perceived to be the ‘bottom line,’ subjecting us to relentless catalogs of ‘betrayals’ through physical deterioration” (p. 3). In its turn, this presupposes that it is in the very nature of just about anyone to actively strive to diminish the effects of aging on his or her body/mind, while trying to look as youthful as ever – even when it comes at the expense of being required to undergo plastic surgeries.

Consequently, the mentioned presupposition is based upon the Eurocentric assumption that it is named, the consumption of goods and services, on the one hand, and experiencing sensual pleasures, on the other, which represents the actual purpose of just about anyone’s existence. This explains the discursive essence of how Western policy-makers used to approach the task of helping older people to remain well accommodated within the society since the end of the WW2.

Throughout the historical period, senior citizens continued to become ever more empowered, in the sense of being able to exercise control over the symptoms of aging, which in turn was expected to help these people to enjoy life to its fullest well into their advanced years. Moreover, it was also believed that it would have a revitalizing effect on the ‘free-market’ economy in the West – something that legitimized the Neoliberal initiative of turning older folks into ‘consumers of health.’

According to Biggs and Powell (2001), “Economic privatization is accompanied by a wish to see those same older people as active consumers, making choices between services and changing services or residence if they are found wanting” (p. 14). It is understood, of course, that this inevitably links the value of an older person, as the fully integrated society member, with his or her varying ability to consume – even when leading a socially withdrawn lifestyle.

Moreover, it results in forcing older people in the West to go about trying to achieve self-actualization in the manner consistent with the provisions of the Eurocentric discourse on aging, which reflects the irrational (although self-deniable) fear of old age, on the part of most Westerners. The authors believe that such a state of affairs cannot be considered fully appropriate because it will endorse even further the discursive dehumanization of financially vulnerable senior citizens. It needs to be acknowledged that there is indeed much integrity to the authors’ argumentative stance.

In her article, The future of aging services in a Neoliberal political economy, Estes (2014) promotes essentially the same idea while exploring the influence of Neoliberalism on the ongoing transformation of the concept ‘elderly-care.’ According to the author, the currently deployed governmental policies, in regard to senior citizens, draw heavily on the ideology of Neoliberalism. This ideology refuses to recognize the role of the clearly societal factors on people’s continual ability to enjoy the ‘fruits of civilization’ while proposing that the task of ensuring the continuation of socio-economic progress is the prerogative of what Neoliberals refer to as the ‘invisible hand of the market.’

Hence, the ongoing process of the government’s responsibility to ensure the welfare of senior citizens becoming increasingly commercialized: “Public policy has created an ‘aging enterprise,’ which assures that the needs of older adults will be processed and treated as a commodity and sold for a profit” (p. 94).

Among the resulting main effects, Estes mention, “the bio-medicalization of aging… and the rationalization of old-age policy” (p. 94). According to her, the continual proliferation of such an ‘aging enterprise’ is exactly the reason why, as of today, older people in the West are assumed to be thoroughly preoccupied with trying to lead a highly independent/autonomous lifestyle – the actual objective of ‘good quality aging’ in the West.

Nevertheless, this objective is far from being deemed as such that represents an undisputed truth-value. After all, an older person’s ability to enjoy autonomy/impendence does not necessarily equal to his or her ability to contribute to the society’s betterment, in the tangible sense of this word. However, as practice indicates, it is specifically the senior citizens’ sensation of remaining practically ‘useful’ to the society, which makes them happy and content with life more than anything else does. Hence, the overall critical sounding of the assessment of Western (Capitalist) aging-paradigm, provided by the author.

Even though Danely’s (2010) article Art, aging, and abandonment in Japan discusses an altogether different subject matter, many of its themes and motifs do correlate with those of the earlier reviewed one, in the sense of confirming the culturally/discursively-relativist nature of people’s perception of aging. According to the author, there is the virtual absence of any egocentric qualities to how older people in Japan contemplate on the significance of aging, in general, and on the process’s societal implications, in particular.

As it appears from the article, there are two reasons for this. First, most Japanese senior citizens never cease remaining communally-minded deep into their advanced years, which in turn allows them to exert a strong influence on the personal lives of their children, well after the latter reach adulthood. Second, Japanese elders tend to experience the desire to be abandoned by their close relatives by the time the former realize the fact that, due to having grown much too old, they begin to burden the society.

As Danely noted, “The greatest fear (experienced by old people in Japan) is not death, but living ‘too long’… (They also) believe that one can and should take efforts to manage one’s last years actively” (p. 12). Partially, this explains why, even though the Japanese government did succeed rather spectacularly in proving its commitment to the idea of turning the country into the ‘welfare state’, the quality of hospice-care in Japan has traditionally been much lower, as compared to the quality of such care in the West.

According to the author, however, such a state of affairs is far from being considered indicative of the fact that the Japan’s elders are much more miserable than their Western counterparts – quite to the contrary. In its turn, this can be explained by the fact that the Japanese old-age policies take into account the societal aspirations of the country’s elders, reflective of the workings of one’s ‘Oriental’ psyche.

In the 2012 study Gendered support to older parents: do welfare states matter? (quoted earlier), Schmid , Brandt and Haberkern strived to define what accounts for the cause-effect relationship between the strength of a particular country’s commitment to the idea of ‘welfare state’ and the qualitative subtleties of intergenerational care, provided to the qualified elders on both: the institutionalized and interpersonal levels. The authors also aimed to discover the gender-specific variations within the context of how the legally bounding care-obligations, on the part of sons and daughters, affect the concerned individuals’ willingness to look after their elderly parents in the thoroughly responsible manner.

Among the study’s most interesting findings can named: a) The confirmed influence of what the authors refer to as the ‘familialistic care regimes’ (decentralized/privatized systems of elder-care) on the inter-gendered characteristics of how this care is being delivered. The authors offer a rather mechanistic explanation to this phenomenon by pointing out to the fact that ‘familialistic care regimes’ provide higher cash-payouts to the caretakers – something that happened to be of particular importance to women. b) The introduction of the care-for-cash policies in the West, intended to benefit senior citizens, should prove advantageous to both: the caretakers themselves and the cared-for older people. At the same time, however, this will contribute towards preserving gender-inequality in the domain of elder-care.

The reason for this is that, according to the authors, “By shifting care responsibilities to the family, i.e. to children, they (policy-makers)… strengthen gender inequality in intergenerational support because daughters seem to be more responsive to these policies than sons” (Schmid et al., 2012, p. 48). Nevertheless, even though many of the study’s insights into the researched subject matter are indeed rather enlightening, there are a few apparent weaknesses to the deployed line of argumentation, on the authors’ part.

Specifically – it seems to have never occurred to Schmid, Brandt and Haberkern that there may be other ways for the elderly to be able to make sense out of their age-advanced existence than indulging in the consumerist behavior 24/7 while enjoying their presumed ‘independence’ from others. Moreover, the authors never considered the influence of one’s ethno-cultural background on the concerned person’s perception of the surrounding social environment and its place in it, as a senior citizen.

The conceptual legitimacy of this critical remark can be substantiated even further, with respect to the findings of the 2014 study Perceptions of healthy aging among African-American and Ethiopian elders by Waites and Onolemhemhen. In it, the authors endeavored to identify the main qualitative difference between the perceptions of ‘healthy aging’, as articulated by African-American elders, on one hand, and by their Ethiopian counterparts, on the other.

The authors also wanted to expose the innate reason, as to why there would be such a difference, in the first place. According to Waites and Onolemhemhen, the study’s African-American participants exposed the tendency to refer to the notion of ‘healthy aging’ in terms of, “not being dependent on medications… being cognitively intact, free of serious mobility impairment or other health problems, and being independent” (2014, p. 371).

It is understood, of course, that there is a clearly defined Eurocentric quality to such a tendency, on these people’s part, because it presupposes the sheer ‘unnaturalness’ of the process – in full accordance with how the phenomena of aging and death have always been addressed in the West. At the same time, however, even though the study’s Ethiopian-born participants do share essentially the same racial background with African-Americans, they also exhibited the tendency to think of healthy aging in the strikingly different ‘holistic’ (value-free) manner. That is, in the eyes of Ethiopians, the process of aging is the natural part of life – not something that people should be preoccupied with trying to avoid.

In a similar way with what it happened to be the case amongst the Japanese, Ethiopians tend to think of ‘healthy aging’ as such that signifies one’s ability not to pay much attention to the fact that he or she grows ever older, in the first place. The reason for this is that in the rurally based traditionalist societies, such as the Ethiopian, the physical deterioration of an older person does not prevent him or her from being able to contribute the society’s well-being in the most active manner.

In such societies, elders represent a high societal value by the very virtue of being old – the advanced age implies that these people possess much wisdom, which they can share with the representatives of the younger generations. The common thing about how the study’s African-American and Ethiopian participants elaborated on the subject of ‘healthy aging’ is that they both used to emphasize that the element of spirituality/religion plays a very important role in the process.

Waites and Onolemhemhen consider the study’s findings to be indicative of:

  1. The fact that the qualitative specifics of the surrounding social environment do have a strong effect on how an older person positions itself within the society.
  2. The existence of a link between the particulars of one’s ethno-cultural affiliation and the person’s aging-related anxieties.

Thus, there can be only a few doubts that the reviewed study is indeed rather insightful.

The same can be said about the 2005 article Towards an international political economy of ageing by Walker, which exemplifies even further the conceptual inconsistency of the Neoliberal approach to dealing with the people of age. In it, the author succeeded in confirming the socially incapacitating effect of the ongoing process of Globalization on older people, which in turn is being predetermined by the fact that when assessed through the lenses of Neoliberalism, such individuals do not represent much value as the economy’s ‘human asset’.

This, in turn, undermines the legitimacy of the ‘welfare state’ concept, which even today continues to define the actual philosophy behind the adoption of different social policies in the West. As Walker noted, “Global competition means that taxation and social costs have to be minimised, and that job security and traditional public welfare states are not suited to a globalised world in which flexibility is the rule” (2005, p. 818).

Consequently, this establishes the precondition for elders in Western countries to grow increasingly disfranchised, in the social sense of this word, “The neo-liberal ideas… have the potential power to undermine established public pension systems” (2006, p. 820). Hence, the author’s insistence that when it comes to assessing the practical implications of the implementation of a particular welfare-policy, governmental officials should do it from what Walker referred to as the ‘international political economy perspective’ – something that will contribute towards restoring the ‘holistic’ quality of the currently popular paradigms of eldercare. This, of course, does increase the article’s value, as such that provides some practical advices, as to how the gerontological issue in question should be addressed.

The provided critical review of the chosen articles/studies does contribute towards confirming the soundness of the paper’s initial thesis – particularly, in the sense of exposing the discursive relativity of people’s varying outlooks on the significance of aging. After all, in the aftermath of having been exposed to these articles/studies, one will indeed be likely to conclude that there is much perceptual subjectivity to the argumentative stance, on the part of just about every of the mentioned authors.

Partially, this explains the presence of logical inconsistencies in some of the reviewed materials, with Walker’s article illustrating the validity of this suggestion perfectly well. For example, after having admitted that, “in developed countries… economic globalisation has had very little discernible impact on policies affecting older people” (2005, p. 819), the author nevertheless expresses his agreement with the idea that “combating poverty (among elders) is a global necessity” (2005. p. 822).

Apparently, it never occurred to the author that the actual reason why old (and fully employed) people in the ‘developing’ countries continue to suffer from having to deal with the severely inadequate standards of living, is that their Western counterparts can indulge in the bellyful idling while retired – despite having been turned into a ‘social burden’ de facto. After all, the process of Globalization is about ensuring the more ‘effective’ redistribution of the planet’s human/natural resources, so that the rich (global North) become even richer, and the poor (global South) become even poorer. What it means is that that the initiatives (usually voiced by the UN) directed at easing the life-challenges of older people on a global scale, may only have a purely declarative value.

Nevertheless, the conducted literature-review did allow us to obtain a number of the commonly overlooked analytical acumens into the subject matter at stake. The most notable of them are as follows:

  1. The emergence of the value-based discursive frameworks (such as the Neoliberal one) for treating older people is best discussed in terms of political economy. That is, the essence of the eldercare-policies in different countries is strongly affected by these countries’ varying ability to generate ‘surplus value’ – the category that evokes the notions of industrialization, urbanization and technological progress. Apparently, the reason why the system of eldercare in the West is becoming increasingly privatized/de-regulated has very little to do with the policy-makers’ official agenda of trying to empower older people as ‘health-consumers’. Rather, it is being concerned with the fact that, as time goes on, Western countries grow ever more de-industrialized (the industrial production-lines are being moved to the Second and Third World) – the ultimate effect of Globalization/out-sourcing on the ‘developed’ nations. As the consequence, the amount of welfare-enabling resources in these countries continues to be reduced – hence, creating the situation when old people are being encouraged to behave in the socially alienated (‘independent’) manner, which in turn helps the government to become less socially accountable and leaves more national wealth in the hands of corporate sector.
  2. The factor of one’s ethno-cultural identity has a powerful effect on the concerned person’s attitudes towards aging. Whereas Westerners tend to think of the process in strongly negative terms, most people in other (especially less developed) parts of the world exhibit a rather neutral attitude towards the prospect of growing old – the study by Waites and Onolemhemhen and the article by Danelya leave only a few doubts, in this respect. In its turn, this can be explained by the ‘holistic’ workings of the non-Western psyche, on one hand, and by the high degree of social integration of elders in the countries where people profess the values of communal living, on the other. Because Western countries continue to become increasingly multicultural, there is very little rationale in assuming that, regardless of what happened to be the particulars of their ethno-cultural background; senior citizens in the West are equally preoccupied with trying to lead ‘independent’ lifestyles. This once again exposes the fallaciousness of the Neoliberal assumptions as to what should be the role of the state in helping older people to address the challenges of aging. Moreover, it also allows us to hypothesize the actual nature of the fallacy in question – the promoters of ‘privatized’ eldercare do not understand the systemic implications of the society’s functioning. After all, because the society represents a much higher level of structural complexity, as compared to what it happened to be the case with the group of odd individuals, the overall principles of the society’s functioning have very little to do with what happened to be the ego-centric agenda of each of its members. Therefore, the idea that by being turned into ‘health-consumers’ and by being provided with cash-payouts senior citizens will be more likely to remain socially integrated does not stand any ground.

In light of the earlier outlined insights, it will be thoroughly appropriate to conclude this paper by restating once again that there are many phenomenological subtleties to the aging-related issues. Therefore, there can be a very little sense in assuming that the Eurocentric outlook on aging will remain fully legitimate in the future. Hence, the following set of recommendations for policy-makers:

  1. Old people should not only be appreciated on the account of their former contributions towards ensuring the society’s well-being, but also on the account of these people’s continual ability to act as the agents of progress, in the factual (not merely declarative) sense of this word – just as it appears to be the case in the traditionalist societies.
  2. For the eldercare-policies to be effective, those in charge of designing them should be fully aware of how the specifics of people’s culture/ethnicity affect their perception of the surrounding social reality.
  3. The government must make sure that the would-be adopted eldercare-policies are fully consistent with the main principles of political economy – something that should increase the effectiveness of the process of social services being delivered to the elderly.

I believe that these recommendations do correlate with the initially provided thesis and with the earlier articulated critical remarks, concerning the reviewed articles/studies of relevance.


Biggs, S. & Powell, J. (2001). A Foucauldian analysis of old age and the power of social welfare. Journal of Aging & Social Policy, 12(2), 1-20.

Danelya, J. (2010). Art, aging, and abandonment in Japan. Journal of Aging, Humanities, and the Arts, 4, 4–17.

Estes, C (2014). The future of aging services in a Neoliberal political economy. Generations, 38(2), 94-100.

Schmid, T., Brandt, M. & Haberkern, K. (2012). Gendered support to older parents: Do welfare states matter? European Journal of Ageing, 9(1), 39-50.

Waites, C. & Onolemhemhen, D. (2014). Perceptions of healthy aging among African-American and Ethiopian elders. Ageing International, 39(4), 369-384.

Walker, A. (2005). Towards an international political economy of ageing. Ageing and Society, 25, 815-839.

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