“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, the 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.