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Social Clock in Psychology: Definition, Origin & Impact

Understanding its Pressures and Challenges

By:
Yelnur Shildibekov, PhD
|
Reviewed by:
Alexander Tokarev, PhD
Social Clock in Psychology – PSYCULATOR
Alex New World | pixabay.com

Key points

  • The concept of social clock was first introduced in 1965 by psychologist Bernice Neugarten
  • Life goals and cultural expectations dictated by social clock change and shift with time
  • In 1890, the median age for first marriage was 26.1 years for men and 22 years for women in US
  • In 2023, these ages increased significantly to 30.2 years for men, and 28.4 years for women in US

Social Clock Definition

The social clock is a time-sensitive roadmap of societal norms and cultural expectations in an individual's life, such as securing employment, getting married, or starting a family[1].

The very definition of the social clock dictates implicit societal expectations and puts pressure on individuals to achieve these milestones within a specified time frame.

Meeting milestones on schedule suggests a person's mental and emotional maturity, whereas those falling behind are seen as less competent by society. This influence of the social clock shapes life decisions, compelling individuals to align with cultural timelines and societal expectations. While these societal expectations may go unspoken, they exert a powerful influence on individuals, impacting their social interactions and overall well-being.

What is an Example of a Social Clock?

A primary example of the social clock in action is the societal expectation to marry and start a family within a specified age range.

Many cultures emphasize the idea that individuals should enter committed relationships and tie the knot in their late twenties to early thirties. This expectation is perpetuated through cultural norms, media, and family beliefs.

Individuals are expected to keep pace with the social clock goals. Those who diverge from the predetermined timeline may face a negative societal judgment or even get ostracized. Individuals who choose to focus on their professional growth, personal development, or other goals instead of conforming to societal expectations of settling down within the conventional timeline are often unfairly perceived as if they are lacking something in their lives or suspected of not being suitable for relationships. On the other hand, individuals who embrace marriage and parenthood either earlier or later than the socially accepted age range may also encounter criticism or raised eyebrows.

It is important to note that the influence of the social clock on marriage and family formation is still potent, and deeply rooted in cultural and traditional values. It exerts significant pressure on individuals to conform to society's expectations, even if their personal circumstances or desires differ. Defying or challenging this social clock demands courage, self-assurance, and a willingness to break free from societal norms in the pursuit of individual happiness and fulfillment.

Related: What is Agreeableness in Psychology: Definition, Benefits, Examples

What is the Social Clock Theory in Psychology?

The social clock, a concept introduced by social psychologist Bernice Neugarten in 1965, delves into the culturally defined timetable dictating the appropriate timing for key life events, such as marriage, graduation, employment, or social status[2].

In contrast to biological clocks, Neugarten proposed that individuals' lives are predominantly molded by culturally prescribed expectations regarding significant milestones, that is, when to attend college, graduate, get their first job, marry, and retire.

The social clock theory suggests that individuals internalize societal expectations, using them as a measure to assess their own progress and success. It establishes a collective timeline that individuals strive to adhere to in order to fit in and meet societal standards. Compliance with the social clock often results in social approval and a sense of accomplishment, while deviation may lead to feelings of anxiety, shame, or a perceived disconnect from peers.

However, it's crucial to recognize that the social clock theory is not universally applicable, given the existence of cultural and individual variations. Different cultures and subcultures may have distinct social clocks with diverse expectations. Additionally, individuals possess unique life trajectories and personal preferences that may not necessarily align with the societal timetable.

The insights from the social clock theory shed light on the impact of societal norms on individuals' decisions and life paths. This highlights the inherent tension between societal expectations and personal autonomy, prompting a deeper examination of the pressures and consequences associated with conforming to or deviating from the social clock.

Related: Free Big Five Personality Test – take our test and find out how strong is your tendency to conform to societal expectations and traditional norms.

Changes in the Social Clock

In recent times, the social clock, which traditionally dictated the timing of significant life events, has undergone notable change and developmental transition, reflecting the dynamic shifts in societal norms and individual lifestyles. The once rigid expectations of social clocks tied to age and specific milestones are giving way to a more fluid and personalized approach.

With the acceleration of societal and technological advancements, individuals in their adulthood are redefining the conventional timelines for major life events, such as career milestones, marriage, parenthood, and retirement.

This change in the social clock is especially evident from a gradual increase in the age of first marriage for both men and women over time. Specifically, considering historical US census data (see graph below), in 1890 an estimated Median Age at First Marriage was 26.1 years for men and 22 years for women respectively. In 2023, these ages increased significantly to 30.2 years of age for men, and 28.4 years for women[3].

First Marriage Age US Census Bureau - PSYCULATOR

Empowered by an era of increased autonomy and diverse perspectives, people are challenging outdated norms associated with the social clock. The concept of a one-size-fits-all schedule for life events is gradually fading, as individuals prioritize personal growth, career exploration, and varied relationship timelines.

This paradigm shift is evident in studies across diverse demographics, showcasing a growing acceptance of alternative life trajectories. As society becomes more inclusive and open-minded, the changing social clock reflects a broader acknowledgment of individual choices and a departure from rigid expectations that may not align with the realities of modern life.

Related: What is Openness in Psychology: Definition, Benefits, Examples

How to Cope with the Social Clock

In today’s world of ever-increasing technological progress, individuals become progressively more aware of the social clock goals, as they are constantly bombarded by unintended reminders from their social media feeds. Social media intensifies social clock expectations to achieve major landmark events as we browse through images portraying our peers' seemingly flawless lives.

Comparing our own setbacks or inadequacies to the curated social media highlight reels of others can have a significant psychological impact, affecting our mental health. The assessment of whether we are "on track" or not plays a crucial role in our emotional state.

Achieving social milestones ahead of schedule brings a sense of accomplishment and purpose while lagging behind the societal clock can lead to feelings of isolation and inadequacy. These perceptions contribute to heightened levels of anxiety, depression, and diminished self-esteem.

To regain control of our lives and challenge the influence of the social clock, a cognitive shift must occur and proactive steps need to be taken to reshape our personal timelines.

You're Not Alone in Facing Societal Expectations:

  • Most individuals struggle to keep pace with meeting all societal expectations.

Success Is Not Tied to the Social Clock:

  • Falling behind societal timelines doesn't equate to personal failure; your right time may differ from others'.

Avoid Unhealthy Comparisons:

  • Refrain from comparing your journey to others', as such comparisons often lead to negative self-perceptions. We are all different.

Embrace Your Uniqueness:

  • Embrace the uniqueness of your path and your circumstances, recognizing that human experiences vary, and so are their social clocks, goals, and objectives.

Reflect on Personal Readiness:

  • Take time for self-reflection to assess your readiness for significant life choices, considering factors like finances, time commitments, and personal priorities.

Question Societal Expectations:

  • Failing to fit within the established norms is not always a problem. Understand that conforming to societal expectations doesn't guarantee happiness, and it's essential to question and evaluate these norms.

Prioritize Personal Fulfilment:

  • Happiness is not solely achieved through meeting societal expectations; fulfillment comes from aligning with your own journey and priorities.

Conclusion

In psychology, social clock is a culturally constructed timetable that guides the expected timing of our significant life events. While providing structure, it varies across cultures, generations, and individuals due to factors such as cultural values and societal changes.

It is crucial to recognize that societal expectations should not override personal autonomy and individual fulfillment. Awareness of the social clock empowers individuals to challenge stereotypes, make choices aligned with their values, and prioritize personal growth. Striking a balance between societal expectations and personal fulfillment is key to leading an authentic and fulfilling life.