THE SOCIAL CLOCK
by Dr. Jan Weiner, Ph.D.
“I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date.” -The White Rabbit
How do we determine the appropriate age to start dating, get married, have kids, and/or retire? Bernice Neugarten (1976) suggested that human beings use a ‘social clock’ to define the cultural norms and expected social behaviors throughout the lifespan. Differing from biological clocks that have a neural origin, social clocks are largely determined by the culture in which we live. Neugarten proposed that we internalize our culture’s social clock and use it to compare with our peers in order to determine our position in the ‘expected life cycle’ (Greene, 2003).
One essential trait for the survival of the human species is the need to belong to a group. Acceptance from the group ensures greater access to safety and resources, whereas rejection from the group can lead to an increased risk of danger and threats to survival. As an adaptive strategy, our brains may have evolved the ability to compare with other group members in order to protect us from being ‘left behind’ (Harris, 2007). Thus, human brain may be hard-wired to worry about questions like: “Am I doing the right thing? Am I contributing enough? Am I as good as everyone else? Am I in the same place in life as others my age? How do I measure up to others in, love, career, money, children, grandchildren, the amount of stuff I have, and the amount of fun I’m having?”
Some people live ‘on-the-clock,’ meaning they hit all of life’s major transitions at socially appropriate time points. However, others may experience one or more deviations from the social clock at some point in their lives (Neugarten, 1976). Both expected and unexpected life events can result in a person going ‘off-the-clock’ for any length of time, ie., breakups, divorces, challenges with fertility, life-threatening illnesses, becoming a caretaker of an ailing parent, spouse, or child, or even obtaining higher education degrees like, J.D.s, M.D.s, and Ph.D.s.
Being ‘on’ or ‘off’ time can have psychological effects. Individuals who keep pace with the social clock may receive a certain level of acceptance and engagement within the workings of society, whereas, those who lag behind, or choose to ignore the clock completely, are at risk of being ostracized from where they fit within the established norms of a society. Feeling “off-time” may also heighten one’s level of anxiety, depression, or negatively impact self-esteem.
Moreover, the advent of social media, including: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Linkedin, and Reality TV, greatly increases our availability and access to additional comparisons with friends, acquaintances, celebrities, and public figures. Never before in history could we press a button and see what Kim Kardashian, Jay-Z, and Prince Harry are doing in their daily lives.
Social media can act as a glaring reminder of your position on the social clock. Easy accessibility to social media also increases the likelihood that you will encounter others who: have done more than you, possess more than you, make more money than you, are having a better vacation than you, have already started families before you. In a recent study, Buxmann and Krasnova (2013) demonstrated that over 33% of Facebook users reported feeling unhappy during their usage and that envying Facebook friends was cited as the major reason for their unhappiness. Another study by Chou and Edge (2012) found that the more hours spent on Facebook is positively correlated with believing that others are happier than you. These comparisons may reinforce the negatives feelings of being ‘off the clock.’
How to cope with being/feeling ‘Off the Clock’.
First, realize that you are not alone, many people experience their own clock struggles.
Being "off of the clock" does not equal failure. There is no such thing as ‘the right or wrong time.’ Falling in love at 70, having your first relationship at 30, going back to school as a grandma can be the right time for you.
Try to limit/stop comparing to others. Instead, try to focus on your own goals.
Do not make decisions based on timing. Timing-based decisions often correct themselves in another chapter of life (getting married/having kids can lead to divorce/struggle later in life).
Being on time doesn’t necessarily equal happiness. Many on-timers have their own life struggles.
Take a break or limit the amount of time you spend on social media.
Grow your social support. Face-to-face interactions with friends can ease clock struggles and lower the likelihood of believing that others are happier (Chou and Edge, 2012).
“Some people are old at 18 and young at 90…time is a concept that humans created.”
Chou, H. G., Edge, N. (2012). They Are Happier and Having Better Lives than I Am: The Impact of Using Facebook on Perception toward Others’ Lives. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking.
Greene, Sheila. (2003). The Psychological Development of Girls and Women: Rethinking Change in Time. London: Routeledge.
Harris, Russ. (2007) The Happiness Trap. How to stop struggling and start living. Boston: Trumpeter Books.
Neugarten, B. (1976). Adaptation and the life cycle. Counseling Psychologist, 6, 16-20.
Schlossberg, Nancy. Ed.D. (2011). Happiness Relates to Whether You Are “Off-Time,” “On-Time,” “Out of Time.” In Transitions Through Life. Published online on Psychology Today, 11/26/2011.