Mason statue.

Millennials demand perfection from themselves and each other, hurting their mental health

Perfectionism is on the rise, but that isn’t good news. College students today are significantly more driven to achieve perfection in all they do compared to those in previous generations, according to a new paper, which could end up eating away at their physical and mental health.

Mason statue.

Image credits Henryk Niestrój.

If I had a dollar for every time someone cited “because I’m such a perfectionist” as the thing holding them back from a certain passion or goal, I’d be rich enough to live the perfect life I so crave. According to a new paper lead-authored by Thomas Curran, PhD at the University of Bath and co-authored by Andrew Hill, PhD at the York St John University, there’s a simple explanation for this — younger generations are simply more demanding of themselves than those before.

But don’t bring out the “#1” banners just yet, because this isn’t good news. The team defined perfectionism as “an irrational desire to achieve along with being overly critical of oneself and others”. The strain of these high (and often unrealistic) expectations we yoke ourselves with might have very damaging consequences for our health and well-being in the long term.

Perfectly imperfect

According to the team, this is the first effort to look into “group generational differences in perfectionism”. The team worked with 164 samples supplemented with data from 41,641 American, Canadian, and British students who took the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale test between the late 1980s and 2016. The researchers looked for three types of perfectionism: self-oriented (an irrational desire to be perfect), socially-prescribed (perceiving excessive expectations from others), and other-oriented (placing unrealistic standards on others).

Overall, the researcher duo found that more recent generations of college students reported significantly higher levels than previous generations on each and every form of perfectionism. Between 1989 and 2016, the team reports self-oriented perfectionism rose by 10%, socially-prescribed by 33%, and other-oriented by 16%.

“These findings suggest that recent generations of college students have higher expectations of themselves and others than previous generations,” said Curran. “Today’s young people are competing with each other in order to meet societal pressures to succeed and they feel that perfectionism is necessary in order to feel safe, socially connected and of worth.”

Curran believes it’s not a single factor that powered this rise, rather several acting at once. Among these, he cites the use of social media. It’s not conclusive, he says, but raw data suggests social media puts young adults in a state of permanent comparison to their peers — which ultimately makes them dissatisfied with themselves, their bodies, lifestyle, anything really, since people fake it a lot on social media. Ultimately, this inability to rise up to the (unrealistic) standards we see pushes people deeper into social isolation (since they perceive themselves as failures). Again, that’s a hypothesis and more research will be needed to confirm or infirm it.

Another example Curran cites is college students’ drive to perfect their grade point averages and compare them with peers. The drive to earn money, pressure to get a good education, and setting lofty career goals, are other areas in which today’s young generation exhibit perfectionism.

m&m sorting.

That and an overpowering urge to sort M&M’s.
Image via RebelCircus.

Curran believes these examples showcase a rise in meritocracy among millennials, especially powered by universities which encourage competition among their students to move up the social and economic ladder. Approximately half of high school seniors expected to earn a college degree in 1976, but by 2008 that number had risen to over 80%. However, the percentage of those actually earning a degree hasn’t kept pace — the gap between high school seniors expecting to earn a degree and those with a degree doubled between 1976 and 2000 and has continued to rise since, the authors note.

“Meritocracy places a strong need for young people to strive, perform and achieve in modern life,” said Curran.

“Young people are responding by reporting increasingly unrealistic educational and professional expectations for themselves. As a result, perfectionism is rising among millennials.”

According to Hill, this increase in perfectionism may be negatively impacting the psychological health of students, noting the higher levels of depression, anxiety, and suicidal in students compared to a decade ago. The authors recommend that schools and policymakers stop fostering competition among younger generations in an effort to preserve their good mental health.

The paper “Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time: A Meta-Analysis of Birth Cohort Differences From 1989 to 2016” has been published in the journal Psychological Bulletin.

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