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The Social Clock: Definition & Theory

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  • 0:02 Social Clock Explained
  • 0:42 Origins of the Social Clock
  • 1:24 Cultural Differences
  • 2:22 Impact of Landmark Events
  • 3:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sharon Linde
Have you ever felt the pressure to reach a milestone, like graduating, buying a house, or getting married, by a certain time? You're not alone. Read more about the 'social clock' and how it works.

Social Clock Explained

Have you ever had that feeling that you were supposed to have accomplished something by a certain point in your life? All your friends are getting married, or having children, or securing jobs. No one has said you have to do these things, but there seems to be an unspoken pressure to do them anyway - like the clock is ticking. What is this?

This social pressure has been around as long as people have lived in societies. Your grandmother likely felt the need to get married before a certain age or she'd be considered an old maid. These examples illustrate a concept called the social clock, or a timetable determined by a culture or social structure, that specifies a proper time for certain events, like marriage, graduation, employment or social status.

Origins of the Social Clock

Social psychologist Bernice Neugarten proposed the idea of the social clock to help explain aging. Neugarten noticed that events in society happened in a predictable manner. Think about your culture. What is considered the best age for marriage? In most western societies, the age is around 25 to 35. However in many cultures, the expectation is as young as 12.

Neugarten suggested that all societies have a social clock, a conscious or unconscious consensus that dictates when events should occur. If the events do not happen in this time frame, people feel stress for not living up to their family's or society's expectations. They judge themselves harshly when they see others achieving these milestones on time.

Cultural Differences

The culture we live in largely determines the landmarks we are expected to reach and the time frame we're expected to reach them in. For example, the time frame of education in America is different than in other parts of the world, and it's due to the way our education system is set up. A child in America is expected to graduate around the age of 18 after completing high school. In Germany, on the other hand, children are divided up into different academic sections around 4th grade, resulting in a less stringent determination of graduation age. Some children go to a technical education program and graduate as early as 16; others shoot into a more advanced program and don't graduate until after they turn 18.

Even within a culture, different social clock traditions exist. Children in middle and upper class societies in America are typically expected to attend college at around age 18; children in poverty have less of an expectation to attend college and are typically expected to begin working for a living after graduation from high school.

Impact of Landmark Events

Reaching a goal by a prescribed time is also seen as a sign of maturity. Neugarten studied aging and researched how people develop. She theorized the social clock acted as a mechanism to guide and shape how people advanced or evolved as they aged. Reaching a landmark at the culturally appropriate time indicated the person was emotionally mature and capable. Think of how graduation or employment is thought of in the United States. Those who do not graduate or get a job at certain times are often thought to be immature. People can be ostracized or viewed as an outcast because of their inability or reluctance to conform to the social clock.

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