The term old maid used to be a dreaded label for women who were still single by the time a certain age rolled around. The social clock theory addresses society's expectations of individuals as they grow and change. What were once strict codes of behavior have become more relaxed in the face of modern trends.
The social clock theory describes how major life changes are expected to take place at a certain time during a person's lifetime. Societal expectations regarding when these changes should occur make up the social clock timeline. This clock provides a way of determining a person's progress within his particular age range. Those who've accomplished the expected tasks by a certain age are considered well-adjusted within society's framework, whereas those who are ahead or behind schedule are viewed as either ahead of the pack or lagging behind.
The concept of the social clock is derived from developmental theories that address how individuals grow and change from childhood to old age. The clock theory is defined as an external gauge that works to shape a standard level of progress or accomplishment within a society. For the individual, reaching landmarks at the expected time indicates a competent level of mental and emotional maturity, while those who lag behind are regarded as less competent in the eyes of society.
The social clock theory views major landmark events within a person's lifetime as indicators of where she falls within the standards of society. Landmark events include graduating from high school, getting a first job, getting married, having children, buying a home and retiring. The type of society a person lives in will determine what types of landmark events will serve as markers. An example of this concept in the United States would be the expectation for a young adult to attend college after graduating from high school. This same adult would be expected to start their own family, or get a job in rural Latin American society.
Society's assigned timelines have a certain effect on individuals who keep pace as well as on those who lag behind. Individuals who keep pace with the social clock can expect a certain level of acceptance and engagement within the workings of society. As a result, a certain level of skill has been acquired as well as a person's ability to better understand himself and others. Those who lag behind or choose to ignore the clock completely are at risk of being ostracized in terms of where they fit within the established norms of a society.
As societal roles for men and women have changed in the past 40 years, social clock timelines for landmark events have become more flexible. Timelines for women in terms of having children have shifted as many women opt to postpone having children until after establishing a career. Timelines for marriage have also become more flexible as both men and women are expected to finish college, and gain their footing within the workplace. Modern lifestyles have required a change in priorities toward education and career. As a result, the timing for many landmark events has shifted accordingly.