How the “social clock” puts pressure on young people

Kelly Florence

This author wonders if society puts too much pressure on young people to succeed by an early age, and explores the “social clock” phenomenon.

by Kelly Florence

Two of my favorite pieces of art premiered on Netflix in 2021: Bo Burnham’s Inside and the Jonathan Larson biopic musical tick, tick … BOOM! Both contain amazing performances, humor, heart, and depth. Each made me laugh, cry, and re-evaluate my life with multiple musical numbers, including two that had similar themes. Academy Award–nominated actor Andrew Garfield sings “30/90” in the opening number of tick, tick … BOOM! while Emmy and Grammy Award winner Bo Burnham sings “30” around the midpoint of his comedy special. Each song grapples with what it means to turn thirty years old and what it says about their success as artists, men, and humans. While I adore and appreciate each of these songs and performances, it got me thinking: do we, as women, have the same feelings about turning thirty? Maybe, but our burden is stronger and even more layered.

Throughout history women have been expected to marry and have children by a certain age. Our biological clocks are “ticking,” and by age thirty-five, any pregnancy is considered “geriatric.” What about careers? What about creative pursuits? What about raising those children we had while we were “young enough” to have them in order to avoid possible complications? Men, and perhaps artistic men in particular, haven’t necessarily had to grapple with the same idea of mortality that women have for generations, and are instead tortured with “making it” by the age of thirty.

This phenomenon can be explained by a concept in the study of communication called chronemics. How we view time, and the passage of it, shapes our view of the world and of ourselves. The United States is very future oriented in its view of time. We tend to focus on the future, our success, and pursuing the “American Dream.” Other countries and cultures may be past or present oriented. People with past orientation focus on tradition instead of focusing on the present or planning for the future. The country of France is considered present oriented due to their thrillseeking and pleasure-based behaviors. How does this affect their happiness? It’s all how we define happiness, whether it be in feelings of excitement or contentment.

It shouldn’t matter how long it takes for us to accomplish our goals, as long as we get there.

In Burnham’s “30,” he compares what his grandfather did by the age of twenty-seven to what he has done. (His granddad fought in Vietnam while Burnham built a birdhouse with his mom.) This “social clock” phenomenon has us comparing ourselves with others, whether it be our peers or our relatives, and comparing our accomplishments to theirs. Have we done as well? Should we be doing more? Garfield, in his portrayal of Jonathan Larson, compares himself to his idol, Stephen Sondheim, and laments how by the time Sondheim was twenty-seven he had already written the lyrics for West Side Story (1957) on Broadway.

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I think of my own social clock and what dreams I accomplished by the time I was twenty-seven. I hadn’t yet been published, had been widowed, didn’t have children yet, and was pursuing my master’s degree in communicating arts. Comparing myself with my peers, I was behind in a lot of ways. But this view, this idea of making our self-concept dependent on comparing ourselves with others, can cause problems. It shouldn’t matter how long it takes for us to accomplish our goals, as long as we get there. It shouldn’t matter at what age we get married, or start our dream career, as long as they are things we want.

Women, for centuries, have written about the traps we may find ourselves in, whether it be relationships or circumstances, including Charlotte Brontë in Jane Eyre (1847), Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892), or the work of Shirley Jackson. But I say now, in 2022: let us take back our power, teach future generations that it’s okay not to conform to the social clocks that may have been instilled in us at an early age. Let’s not constantly compare ourselves to our peers. Let’s lift each other up, support each other, and help each other to succeed. I’m well over thirty, but I’m proud of my accomplishments and how far I’ve come (currently, I’m working on my sixth book!) As Shirley Jackson wrote in her journal, “I am the captain of my fate.”1 Let’s get to work.

1Heller, Zoe. (October 10, 2016) “The Haunted Mind of Shirley Jackson.” The New Yorker.

Kelly Florence teaches communication at Lake Superior College in Duluth, MN, and is the creator of the Be a Better Communicator podcast. She received her B.A. in theater from the University of Minnesota Duluth and her M.A. in communicating arts from the University of Wisconsin–Superior. She has written, directed, produced, choreographed, and stage managed for dozens of productions in Minnesota including Carrie: The Musical through Rubber Chicken Theatre and Treasure Island for Wise Fool Theater. She is passionate about female representation in all media and particularly the horror genre.

Kelly is the co-author of The Science of Monsters, The Science of Women in Horror, The Science of Stephen King, The Science of Serial Killers, and The Science of Witchcraft with Meg Hafdahl. They co-host the Horror Rewind podcast and write and produce horror projects together. Kelly is represented by literary agent Stacey Kondla and TV/film agent Karmen Wells at The Rights Factory.

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