Life as an Elder: Individualistic versus Collectivistic Societies

Does the paralleling difference with individualistic and collectivistic societies’ perspective on aging alter an elder’s self-concept in the long run? The key distinction between individualistic and collectivistic societies is the perception of how elders are viewed. Although elders are bombarded with stereotypes and expectations, which critically affects their self-concept as individuals in society, exhaustive judgments is what leads them to self-doubt. The comparison between two different structures of society epitomizes how stereotypes and social status can significantly affect how elders are perceived. However, only collectivistic societies promote elders positively.

The two paralleling differences between how elders are viewed in individualistic versus collectivistic societies depend where elders are in the social rank. Individualistic societies, such as the United States, highly value autonomy and independence (Pethtel, 2010). Western cultures appreciate self-enhancing tendencies that the stem to success, separateness, internal attributes, and uniqueness of individuals (Pethtel, 2010). Naturally with age, individuals become dependent on others due to health reasons. Individualistic societies view dependence as an unfavorable trait, which causes elders who seek dependence to be placed lower in the social ladder. Elders are given less control and power as they lose social status, causing discrepancies with their self-concept due to their disadvantage in an individualistic society. In contrast, collectivistic societies such as China and South Korea value interdependence within families where the emphasis is on connectedness, social context, and relationship harmony (Zhou, 2007). Furthermore, aging in collectivistic societies is essentially more widely welcomed. Elders claim seniority in East Asian cultures because collectivistic societies constructed an image of wisdom and prestige that elders gain through normative aging.

Social stereotypes influence how society views and treats the elder. In individualistic societies such as the United States, elders are viewed as incompetent and associated with negative judgments (Zhou, 2007). For instance, if a car accident occurs between an elder and reckless high school student, often times the blame is on the elder’s poor eyesight and slow motor skills. Since society perceives elders with such stigma, it is hard not to be individually affected by it. In the United States, preservation of youth is what drives the culture. Naturally, elders get conscious of what they are referred to as, so “senior citizens” replace the label of “old people” and expression of age is changed from seventy years old to seventy years young (Zhou, 2007). Since the United States shows respect for individualism and egalitarianism, people carry more negative stereotypes to older adults who naturally need more dependence due to their health and limitations (Zhou, 2007). Despite one’s healthy, competent, decision-making capability as an elder, social perceptions impact their self-worth. On the other hand, collectivistic societies set up a positive framework for the elders. Collectivistic societies center their custom on valuing and treating elder with respect. In addition, South Korea created societal expectations by strongly enforcing obedience through mandatory military attendance for men (CIA, 2011). Many East Asian cultures show distinct signs of unconditional respect due to their interdependent and family-oriented structures. For example, Chinese’s cultural value of elder respect is closely related to moral principles in Confucianism (Zhou, 2007). Since Confucianism values inter-generational relationships, family structure is closely related reasons of success and status in society (Zhou, 2007). An indicator of successful parenting is linked to filial piety, where the child returns the gratitude by obliging their duties by taking care of their parents in return for raising them (Zhou, 2007). Elders are well-respected and taken care within families because collectivistic societies created societal norms of returning the favor to one’s parent.

In amidst of the two societies, the varying views toward the elders occurs because the way of achieving and promoting success is different. Collectivistic societies are built to encourage and benefit the elders. The construction of social status and stereotypes had eventually caused the varying perception towards the elders.


Central Intelligence Agency. (2011). The World Factbook – Military Service Age and Obligations. Retrieved from

Pethtel O, Chen Y(2010). Cross-cultural aging in cognitive and affective components of subjective well-being. Psychology and Aging [serial online]. September 2010;25(3):725-729.

Zhou, L. (2007). What college students know about older adults: A cross-cultural qualitative study. Educational Gerontology, 33(10), 811-831.


2 responses to “Life as an Elder: Individualistic versus Collectivistic Societies

  • optimisticaging

    Interesting! I haven’t closely observed how collectivist cultures tend to value elders more than individualistic cultures. Of course elders in many Asian and African cultures, have more respect than they do here in the United States, but I really see this Individualistic/Collectivist connection now.

    This reminds me to my morning experiences on Muni taking the M-line to school. Along with many young adults going to San Francisco State, there are also a lot more older people than you would see normally. They are usually early-birds who like to shop at Stonestown, or have already made their full outing as they head back home to Ingleside. All too often, the college students use their bags, reading material, or electronics as excuses that maybe they didn’t “see” them struggling to find a seat. Sometimes they will even close their eyes pretending they are napping.

    We have to realize that the world exists outside of our own priorities! Seniors in particular often have led a full life contributing to a family and society. Along with that includes many sacrifices, successes, and insightful stories we can learn from and respect. Thinking about it like this, we would not be anywhere near as advanced as we are today if it weren’t for their arduous contributions.

    If we can raise our own kids with this thought in mind, hopefully they will give elders full respect, and actually interact with them more meaningfully. It’s too bad this kind of morale you mention doesn’t seem to be innate in our culture.

  • jdow346

    This article was very thought provoking! I learned that American culture and Asian culture view the elderly differently, and how America has an individualistic perspective while Asia has a collectivistic perspective. I learned that this can positively or negatively affect an elder person’s self-esteem and their outlook on life. It made me wonder how this may affect them emotionally, psychologically, and physically? I enjoyed learning about the religious aspect as well, and how Confucianism value inter-generational relationships. I also wonder how an Asian-American family may view their elderly, and if they are influenced by American’s view on old age? I enjoyed reading this article because it was informative, as well as it got me to think and ask questions.

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