Cultural Intelligence and Aging Parents

Cultural Intelligence and Aging Parents

Most days, when I take the time to read the newspaper, I find an article about another country that provokes me to reflect on what I might learn about their culture.

Recently, I saw a small article on new Chinese Legislation in the International Herald Tribute. The header read ‘Law requires children to visit their aging parents, or face lawsuit.’ Although there is no reference as to what defines frequency of visits, parents can sue their children if they do not receive expected support. Reports indicate China is increasingly having difficulty in caring for its aging population.

When I mentioned this legislation to colleagues, it was greeted with some laughter. Musing to myself, I wonder: What is it about this legislation that evokes amusement here in Toronto? And why does China feel this law is now necessary? What has changed?

To explore these questions lets define the word ‘culture’. One definition that I like is ‘the way we do things around here’ – behaviors that have been absorbed from the environment of family, school, politics and/or work.

Researchers, such as Gert Hofstede, tell us that China is a highly collectivistic country, where the identity or the group is more powerful than the individual. Loyalty, harmony and conformity are paramount. Contrast that with individualism, which values personal freedom and achievement typical of countries such as Canada and Australia. In a practical sense that means individuals do what is best for them versus what is best for the group. However, collectivistic behavior can be seen in groups here in typically individualistic countries as well.

China has a history of respect and care for their elders. Their elders are reported to be the happiest in the world. Perhaps because of their belief in Confucianism, which stresses among other things love for humanity, reverence for parents, and harmony in thought and conduct: they have a close network from their ‘in group’ of many years and after working hard all their lives, expect their children to take care of them.

So what has happened in China? One answer might be that the younger generation is adopting Western practices of individualism and taking care of themselves and their careers, rather than paying the expected attention to their parents. Another possibility is supported by the demographics expert, Cai Feng, who told Newsweek “the one-child generation are more likely to be spoiled and self-centered. As adults, children of this generation lack the inclination to support their parents.”

This legislation, which sounds preposterous to us here, is not what we would expect from a country that historically has so valued their elders.

Keith B. Richburg wrote in the Washington Post, “Rapid urbanization, coupled with the one-child policy and other societal changes, has left tens of millions of elderly people living alone, often with little in the way of government aid. China has few nursing homes and no tradition of professional caretakers to look after the elderly when they become infirm”.[Source: Keith B. Richburg, Washington Post, January 18, 2012]

Demographics suggest that the profound greying of China and their past polices is actually going to be an economic disaster.

Canada also has a significant demographic bulge made up of people over the age of 65. And the 2007 census reveals only 6.5% of elderly parents are living with their families. The remainder of our elders either lives alone or in some type of senior home. In stark contrast to China, we have a growth industry devoted to aged care, with a plethora of various living options continuously being created. Health care and pension may be our economic Achilles heel.

At first glance, it was a little article, intriguing since it was remote from anything we think would happen here in our part of the world. Once we explored the cultural intelligence (CQ) behind the proposed legislation, we better understood the intent.

I invite each of us to spend more time ‘wondering why’ when we see difference and use the opportunity to grow our CQ.

 Rhonda Singer invites comments at