At what age should someone get married?
That’s a complex question, and it becomes even more complicated if you think about how people would have answered it 15, 30, or even 60 years ago. People are now getting married at an older age, which is affecting what people consider is a normal age to get married.
Estimated Median Age at First Marriage: 1960 to present
Source: U.S. Census Bureau
Those factors are related to social clock theory. The concept suggests that there are appropriate times for certain life events. Meeting or failing to meet those norms can influence one’s self-esteem and overall mental health.
Social Clock Theory Explained
Social psychologist Bernice Neugarten identified the social clock theory in the 1960s as shared expectations of age-appropriate behavior. Members of society are told explicitly and implicitly when it’s “appropriate” to start their first job, get married, have a baby, purchase a home, and retire. Social clock examples can include virtually anything that people commonly do throughout their lives.
Adhering to or diverging from the social clock can be a major source of adult personality change, according to Laura Berk in “Developing Through the Lifespan.” For instance, studies of women born in the 1930s were conducted to examine personality changes in adulthood that are linked to three social clock categories:
- A “feminine” clock based on marriage and parenthood in the early or mid-twenties
- A “masculine” clock based on entry into a high-status career and advancement by the late twenties
- Women who didn’t follow either of the two previous clocks
Women who followed the “feminine” clock were more responsible, self-controlled, tolerant, and caring. However, as their lives progress, they declined and felt more vulnerable. Those women following the “masculine” clock were more dominant, sociable, independent, and intellectually effective. The women who weren’t married or started a career by age 30 suffered from feelings of incompetence, self-doubt, and loneliness.
“The social clock revolves around age norms,” according to Chandra Mehrotra in “Aging and Diversity.” “Cultures encourage people to behave in ways that are consistent with their age, as defined by the social rules of the culture.” Social class can also have a strong influence on norms. For instance, in the United States, members of the working class often marry long before those in the middle, upper-middle, and upper-class. The age of marriage impacts the number of children, marital satisfaction, and likelihood of divorce.
Why Do Adults Follow a Social Clock?
A simple way to understand why people would follow a social clock is the idea of fitting in. Adults who follow a social clock can easily relate themselves to others, enhancing their understanding of their place in society.
Mehrotra pointed out how culture guides, but doesn’t determine, individual behaviors. Like other social rules that members of society use, a social clock can help individuals know when it’s appropriate to perform certain life events. Cultural norms can vary based on social classes, genders, religions, and even occupations.
Here are two studies that demonstrate differences in cultural norms for the social clock.
- A study in the Journal of Adult Development examined Turkish young adults’ perception of social clock for marriage and parenthood impacted their well-being and need satisfaction (autonomy, competence, and relatedness).Those who perceived themselves as fulfilling adulthood roles on time had higher outcomes in observed areas, including higher rates of life satisfaction and lower rates of depression.
- Two studies in the International Journal of Aging & Human Development examined Australian university students’ beliefs about the timing of transition events. The students ranged from 17 to 50 years of age, and events included both family transitions (marriage, parenthood, grandparenthood) and career transitions (leaving school, retirement). The results were much different than original studies in the United States on age norms conducted three decades previously. For example, only a minority` of Australian adults believed that university study had prescriptive upper age boundaries. Compare that to Mehrotra note regarding seminal studies conducted in the 1970s and 1980s, which, for instance, found that a “prospective student who applies to medical school at 50 years of age may well find strong resistance to his or her entry.”
All societies have timetables that impact members. However, norms are continually shifting, and there are a number of variables that can affect any given norm and whether or not a person will adhere to it. An individual can find identity in a norm from their social class, gender, religion, profession, or some other realm. Or that person may reject cultural and generational influences on getting married or a major career decision, for instance.
From the Social Clock to the Study of Aging
The social clock theory has become an important component to the study of aging.
According to Kenneth Ferraro in an article for The Gerontologist, Neugarten’s social clock theory has been understood in the study of aging as a means of social control. “Although age norms on many behaviors have been relaxed in recent decades, Neugarten and colleagues showed the potency of age norms to constrain thought and action,” he said. Though age norms may be drastically different, as the studies of Australian adults demonstrated, Neugarten’s seminal research found “remarkable convergence in the ideal ages for . . . events and behaviors.”
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