Every single one of us, to some degree, feels the pressure to succeed—to be better and to do better. But its today’s youths that could be suffering because of it. A new study “Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time: A Meta-Analysis of Birth Cohort Differences from 1989 to 2016” from the American Psychological Association says college students today are more driven than ever before to achieve perfection, and it may be taking a toll on their mental health.
Lead author Thomas Curran, PhD, of the University of Bath says that this is the first study to examine generational differences in perfectionism—which he and his co-author Andrew Hill, PhD, of York St John University, define as, “an irrational desire to achieve along with being overly critical of oneself and others.”
To reach these findings, Curran and Hill evaluated data from 41,641 American, Canadian, and British college students who completed the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale—a test designed to measure generational changes in perfectionism—between the late 1980s and 2016. Three subgroups of perfectionism were measured: self-oriented perfectionism, whereas one fosters an irrational desire to be perfect; socially prescribed, in which an individual perceives excessive expectations from others; and lastly, other-oriented, or where one holds others to unrealistic standards.
Ultimately, the researchers found that the more recent generations of college students reported significantly higher scores for all of the aforementioned forms of perfectionism than did earlier generations. More specifically, the self-oriented perfectionism score rose by 10 percent, the socially prescribed score rose by 33 percent, and the other-oriented perfectionism score rose by 16 percent.
Curran says that this overall rise in perfectionism among college students is fueled by multiple elements, but they all share a common denominator: the pressure to achieve. The pressure to measure up to one’s social media followers, the pressure to get a good education, and even the pressure to make better grades than one’s peers. According to Curran, the latter example is an example of the rise in meritocracy among millennials, whereas schools encourage competitiveness in students to advance socially and economically.
Meritocracy has a direct effect on the rise of perfectionism, as explained by Curran: “Meritocracy places a strong need for young people to strive, perform and achieve in modern life. Young people are responding by reporting increasingly unrealistic educational and professional expectations for themselves. As a result, perfectionism is rising among millennials.”
This research also led Curran and Hill to observing changes in high school seniors: in 1976, approximately half of high school seniors expected to attend and graduate college; and by 2008, that number rose to over 80 percent. However, these rising expectations have failed to match up with numbers of college graduates—the gap between the number of high school seniors expecting to graduate college and those who actually graduated college doubled between the years 1976 and 2000, and it continues to rise.
“These findings suggest that recent generations of college students have higher expectations of themselves and others than previous generations. 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 explained.
This increase in perfectionism could very well be affecting the psychological health of today’s college students, according to Hill, who cited higher levels of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts than a decade ago. To fight back against this unfortunate effect, he urges schools as well as policymakers to stop or, at the very least, limit fostering this harmful competitive nature among young adults—as doing so could prove to preserve their mental health.
American Psychological Association. (2018, January 2). Perfectionism Among Young People Significantly Increased Since 1980s, Study Finds [Press release]. Retrieved on January 3, 2017 from http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2018/01/perfectionism-young-people.aspx