Think Globally, Act Locally: The Maturing of a Worldwide Science and Practice of Aging

By Frank J. Whittington and Suzanne R. Kunkel, Guest Editors

Given the press of important issues facing professionals in the field of aging, readers of this global aging issue of Generations may well ask, “Why should we who work in aging services care about aging in other countries?” Or simply, “What’s in it for us to study global aging?”

Clearly, human aging as a biological process is universal. All humans, regardless of race, nationality, culture, or language, will mature; those fortunate enough to survive the vagaries of early life will age, become frail in late life, and die at an old age. This may—or may not—provide mental comfort as we contemplate the life course ahead. Yet the paths we follow, the goals we pursue, and the old age we experience are highly influenced by society and culture. Individual aging is not simply a biological process; the psychological, emotional, social, and economic dimensions are equally important. So the actual experience of old age is a complex expression of the “guidelines” set for us by our ethnic, national, social, family, and economic memberships. Aging is defined, socially and culturally, by the groups to which we belong.

For the first half-century in gerontology’s development in the United States and Western Europe (from approximately 1945 to 2000), social gerontologists focused almost exclusively on aging in their own countries. It wasn’t so much that no one imagined aging occurring, and occurring differently, in other parts of the world; the focus was on aging locally because of limits on time, budget, political will, and imagination. The “demographic imperative of aging” became an important rhetoric to acknowledge that unprecedented growth in the size of the older population would create unimagined pressures on all of our social systems. Early attention to the challenges of an aging population was understandably invested in issues close to home; the demographic reality was new, the awareness was new, and the state, local, and national implications were daunting.

As the social and economic systems of the United States and Western Europe evolved in response to this demographic shift, attention turned outward to a world in which globalization was changing everything, and in which population aging was becoming a universal concern. Gerontology needed to mature a bit before it became apparent that our cultural and political biases were exerting powerful influences on our understanding of aging. Slowly it has dawned on us that most of what we “know” about aging is really only what we know about aging close to home. And that, we now realize, is not enough.

The History of a Perspective

Despite gerontology’s early preoccupation with “local aging,” what we now call “global aging”—the appreciation and study of aging in other lands and the systematic comparison of their social, psychological, and economic patterns of aging with our own—has been around since at least the beginning of modern gerontology. Leo Simmons (1945) was one of the earliest social scientists interested  in aging outside the United States. Using the Yale Human Relations Area Files (a database, created by Yale University, of ethnographies on nearly 400 ethnic, cultural, religious, and natural groups worldwide), he documented aging beliefs and practices in many “primitive” societies, alerting his early colleagues in gerontology to the fact that aging was a very different process, depending upon where one lives.

Donald Cowgill and Lowell Holmes made the first systematic effort to theorize and gather data about aging in different countries, and their major work on modernization theory was published in 1972. They argued that as societies modernized (moving from agricultural to industrial economies, becoming more educated, technologically advanced, and urban), their populations would age, but their old people would inevitably lose social status. In effect, traditional knowledge would be devalued in favor of modern scientific knowledge, thus undermining the status of the elders who carried and enforced cultural traditions. Old ways—and old people—would be less valuable in modernizing societies than younger people, who were educated to understand and use scientific knowledge. This theory seems to be supported by the generally low status of older people that is observed in many modern societies, and the romantic reports of respect and veneration accorded to elders in many “primitive” cultures.

While scholars and students were initially attracted to the theory’s elegance and common sense, many have critiqued and rejected it, primarily because it did not stand up to empirical testing. Regardless of current views of modernization theory, it was the first—and still the best—theory to stimulate interest, thought, and further study of aging in non-Western nations.

Through the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, American anthropologists, political scientists, economists, and sociologists began cautiously looking over the horizon at aging in other countries to see how it compared with our own—while those in Europe were doing the same. Special interest groups in “international aging” were formed in some scholarly associations; separate international organizations were established to study, publicize, or advocate for older adults around the world; and a number of journals and newsletters were started to communicate with the growing network of scholars, government specialists, and advocates involved in work on aging.

In 1980, Erdman Palmore edited the first International Handbook on Aging, which contained chapters written by leading gerontologists or geriatricians in each of twenty-eight countries where the study of aging was beginning or well advanced. Each chapter described the state of aging research, training, and policy in the target country. Then in 1993, a second edition of the handbook, called Developments and Research in Aging: An International Handbook, was published and included updates on research, policies, and professional progress for twentyfive countries, most of which were written by the chapters’ original authors.

In 2009, an expanded third edition of the International Handbook (with co-editors Frank Whittington and Suzanne Kunkel) appeared, documenting the startling growth and development in gerontology, geriatrics, and aging policy initiatives in all regions of the world, but focusing on forty-six countries having significant aging activity. Again, each chapter was written by one of the leading gerontologists or geriatricians in that country. While a few nations with strong gerontological traditions were unavoidably omitted (e.g., France, Germany, Russia), the weight of evidence presented makes clear that societal interest in aging, scholarly research, and formal training programs for practitioners and scientists are on the rise, even in many developing countries with limited scholarly traditions and more limited economic resources (Botswana, Cuba, Estonia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Uganda, and Zimbabwe).

All this activity has aimed to discover if the social, psychological, and health experiences of aging people in other countries are the same, much the same, somewhat different, or very different from our own.

Reasons to Look Outward

In a forthcoming textbook on global aging, we argue that studying this topic is important to us for three main reasons (Kunkel, Brown, and Whittington, in press).

To be an educated person

Aging is a new, powerful social force affecting every aspect of our society (and those of the other developed countries). In each of these societies we are being forced by the presence of large numbers of older people to confront and examine the nature of productivity, consumption, employment, physical functioning, government services and finances, family relations, and community life. For the first time in history, most humans will experience a new phase of life known as “retirement”—a period of time that can include more leisure time and expanded opportunities for productivity, but also reduced financial resources and greater functional limitations. To be an educated person in modern society demands that one be knowledgeable about this worldwide revolution in aging, both for its personal implications and for its likely impact on our political and economic futures.

For those of us involved in the design, delivery, and improvement of programs to serve older adults, becoming educated about how things are done in other places provides a powerful opportunity to learn from each other, and to reflect on the assumptions underlying our own strategies for meeting the needs of our aging citizens. As we communicate with colleagues in other countries, not only do we learn about new ideas from their culture, but in telling the story of what has happened in our own nation we also gain a new perspective on what has and has not worked. If Americans speak with colleagues in Thailand about long-term-care systems, for example, we may learn much from their neighborhood-based, volunteer caregiver program for elders whose families cannot be available for daily support; and we could share challenges we have faced from our entrenched institutional-based approach to long-term care. Such global conversations allow us to learn from each other—from our successes and our mistakes—and to adapt innovations in other countries to our own.


Aging in our own country and culture is important to us because it just is. On a personal level, we will witness and be part of the aging of our parents, grandparents, and friends—and someday we will experience it ourselves. On a broader scale, as citizens, our lives are affected by the aging of our countless fellow citizens who, though they are strangers to us, have needs and behaviors that will affect the policies of our nation.

But aging is universal; all humans will experience it if they live long enough. As the old proverb says: “All would live long, but none would be old.” There is a universal concern for personal aging and a widespread (if not universal) practice of learning about our own aging by observing that of others. And if we understand
aging in other countries, we increase our possibilities for learning and preparation. For many individuals, aging—and its wicked partner, dying—represent a fearsome beast lurking at the end of a long, dark passageway. We cannot know exactly what it holds for us; we can only look at others like us who are traversing the corridor and hope to learn the best way of making it to the end. In this intense lifelong study, we may become aware that some evil results are inevitable, while others are avoidable, and desirable outcomes are possible. Learning about the aging of others is one way of plotting our own best path down that shadowed hallway.

Fortunately, today we have far more role models for success and many more variations for how aging can be a positive experience. As we write in our forthcoming book (Kunkel, Brown, and Whittington, in press), “The world is globalizing, becoming, in the words of Marshall McLuhan (1962), a ‘global village.’ The twin revolutions in technology and communication that allow people in one part of the world to know what is happening in all other parts—and to go there quickly, as tourists or as permanent migrants—mean that we are not only connected but ‘collected’ with each other in important ways.”

It is now self-evident that our own wellbeing is not entirely in our hands. In fact, “. . . the economic and political well-being of the U.S. (or any other nation) is tied directly to the work and consumer behavior of 1.4 billion Chinese, or the technical knowledge of 1.1 billion Indians, or the religious tolerance of 237 million Indonesians, or even the political aspirations of 75 million Iranians, [so] we really ought to pay attention to what is going on in their countries.”

During the early days of the 2012 presidential campaign for the Republican nomination, Herman Cain asserted to a journalist that it was hardly relevant or important for him (if he became president) to know the names of other world leaders, such as the president of Uzbekistan, a country he described as one of “these small, insignificant states around the world” (Cain, 2011). But we maintain Cain was badly mistaken about the impact of the president’s (and our) knowledge of global facts, issues, and affairs. As small and relatively poor as it is, Uzbekistan is still an important part of an interconnected world—the conflicts, famines, and diseases among its 29 million citizens probably will not remain solely its own business. Because such problems quickly can be communicated, transmitted, or migrated to a neighborhood near us, we must be aware of—and care about—what is happening in other parts of the globe.

The world is not static. For the last four years the so-called developed world has been experiencing a recession that may (or may not) be waning. The “developing” world is, well, developing. It is not clear at this point which nations will be eclipsed by which others as world powers, or why. It is tough to imagine the United States as less than the world’s one superpower, but the rise of China as an economic juggernaut, the emerging strength of India, Korea, and Brazil, coupled with the stagnation of Japan, Russian, Italy, Spain, and countless other countries should give us pause. Again, from our textbook: “As aging transforms developing nations demographically and socially, it will create profound economic and developmental changes in these emerging world powers, along with exciting opportunities for the realization of human potential. Whatever is happening to the smallest, least visible countries will affect the developed world in ways we can hardly imagine today. It is in the interest of all people that such far-reaching and fundamental changes be understood sooner rather than later” (Kunkel, Brown, and Whittington, in press). If we care about our future well-being, we will need to know about—and care about—that of the rest of the world as well.

Building global accord

We believe that the broader our global knowledge and experience, the less likely our national representatives will misunderstand and mistrust each other. Learning about how other people live their lives, raise their families, care for their parents, and die is hardly the key to global peace and happiness. But it certainly can help. As we professionals and scholars in the field of aging come to realize that “. . . aging is a universal experience, that all families, communities, and societies—no matter how different they may seem from our own—struggle as we do to cope with its results, and that many old people find it a productive, fulfilling time of life, we may begin to perceive our commonalities are greater than our differences. That would be the beginning of wisdom at least” (Kunkel, Brown, and Whittington, in press).

This Issue of Generations

We are extremely proud of the articles in this issue because of their breadth and the quality of their writing. With the assistance of the Generations Editorial Advisory Board, we selected topics and authors that would give a broad overview of the field of global aging, but we also included some that demonstrated how aging was affecting life in a particular country. We asked authors to provide readers with a summary of the key issues in their area and to share some the latest data on those issues.

Peter Uhlenberg helps us understand the role of age in demographic changes around the world and how the number of old people will affect us. Three scientific leaders in the health field, Kevin Kinsella, John Beard, and Richard Suzman bring us up-todate todate on global health trends in aging. Nancy Pachana summarizes the challenges of understanding mental and emotional problems in older adults across cultures; and Tay McNamara and John Williamson, who are well-known for their work on retirement policy, explain how work and retirement are practiced in the world’s industrialized societies. Larry Polivka and Baozhen Luo provide a contrast to this article with their survey of global pension policy, especially in the developing nations.

Robert Applebaum and colleagues have produced a gem of an article on long-term care as it is practiced in many countries, categorizing the systems according to their extensiveness and methods of financing. Applying his usual astute legal scholarship, Marshall Kapp provides a global explication of age discrimination, especially in employment and retirement. Susan Collins and colleagues, collaborate to show how international and national community support policies can foster well-being and quality of life for older people in many societies. Terry Hokenstad and Amy Restorick Roberts describe the leadership and advocacy role of international nongovernmental organizations (NGO)—especially the United Nations and HelpAge International—in bridging national boundaries and pursuing a global agenda on aging. For educators, Peggy Perkinson brings her extensive experience in global aging education to summarize the state of gerontological and geriatrics education around the world.

We invited three authors to provide insights into how other societies view and deal with some of the same problems Americans face. Merril Silverstein and Zhen Cong explore a familiar phenomenon—grandparents caring for their grandchildren—but focus on the case of the “left-behind” generation in rural China. Heying Jenny Zhan deals with a different long-term-care problem in China, describing that nation’s past one-child policy and exploring its impact on caregiving among the baby boom generation and on the nation’s policy and acceptance of long-term-care institutions. Finally, Noriko Tsukada describes the dilemma facing Japan of how to care for its large and growing elderly population with a shrinking workforce, and how a national policy of importing LTC workers from developing nations has created problems.

We are pleased to present this compilation of articles on global aging for careful perusal and study because we believe they illuminate two important truths about aging: It is a universal human condition with many common experiences; and different peoples can—and do—think about, treat, and experience aging differently. Within these truths lies a deeply embedded paradox: How can the same changes of body, mind, and social location produce different results? In putting together this issue of Generations, we asked experts to provide at least partial answers to that intriguing question, along with some thoughts on another: “What value may be gained from the answers?”

The more we learn about both the global variations and global similarities in ageways (good and bad)—weaknesses and strengths, productivity and waste, elder wisdom and elder despair—the greater will be our chance of aging well.

Frank J. Whittington is a professor of gerontology and senior associate dean of the College of Health and Human Services at George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia. Suzanne R. Kunkel is a professor of gerontology and the director, Scripps Gerontology Center, at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

Editor’s Note: This article is taken from the Spring 2013 issue of ASA’s quarterly journal, Generations, an issue devoted to the topic “Our World Growing Older: A Look at Global Aging.” ASA members receive Generations as a membership benefit; non-members may purchase subscriptions or single copies of issues at our online storeFull digital access to current and back issues of Generations is also available to ASA members and Generations subscribers at Ingenta Connect. For details, click here.


Cain, H. 2011. “Interview.” The Brody File, Christian Broadcasting Network, October 9. 

Cowgill, D., and Holmes, L., eds. 1972. Aging and Modernization. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Kunkel, S. R., Brown, S., and Whittington, F. J. In press. Global Aging: Comparative Perspectives of Aging and the Life Course. New York: Springer.

McLuhan, M. 1962. The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press.

Palmore, E. B. ed. 1980. International Handbook on Aging: Contemporary Developments and Research. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Palmore, E. B. ed., 1993. Developments and Research on Aging: An International Handbook (2nd ed.). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Palmore, E. B., Whittington, F., and Kunkel, S. eds. 2009. The International Handbook on Aging: Current Research and Developments (3rd ed.). Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

Simmons, L. 1945. Role of the Aged in Primitive Society. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.