Perfectionism on the rise among millennials, but to what effect?

Millennials may be the most perfectionist generation yet, a new study shows, but their drive to achieve success and remain on the peak may pose important threats to their mental health.

Perfectionism, if one were to judge by its name alone, does not sound like an undesirable trait. After all, it is commendable to strive to do our best in all settings — from work to family life.

Often, however, perfectionism can give rise to an intense sense of pressure that could affect our psychological well-being.

A study recently conducted by Thomas Curran, from the University of Bath, and Andrew Hill, of York St. John University — both in the United Kingdom — now shows that millennials are the generation most predisposed to perfectionism.

This may well be affecting their mental health in ways that their parents and grandparents may not have experienced.

The study's findings were published in the journal Psychological Bulletin.

Steep rise in perfectionism by 2017

In their published paper, Curran and Hill define perfectionism as "a combination of excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations," which explains why many people prone to this take in life may find it more difficult to achieve satisfaction.

The researchers examined data from 41,641 college students from the United States, Canada, and the U.K. These data were sourced from 164 samples wherein the students had completed the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale, which measures the different predispositions toward perfectionism across generations, from the late 1980s to 2016.

Curran and Hill used a model that took into account three different types of perfectionism:

  • self-oriented, which is when "individuals attach irrational importance to being perfect [and] hold unrealistic expectations of themselves"
  • socially prescribed, which is when "individuals believe their social context is excessively demanding, [...] and that they must display perfection to secure approval"
  • other-oriented, which is when "individuals impose unrealistic standards on those around them"

From the samples, it became apparent that the younger cohorts of college students scored higher for all three types of perfectionism than previous generations of students.

The data revealed that, from 1989 to 2016, an average college student's score for self-oriented perfectionism increased by 10 percent, and for socially prescribed perfectionism it increased by as much as 32 percent. Meanwhile, a 16 percent rise was noted in other-oriented perfectionism.

Curran and Hill suggest that several reasons may stand behind this steep increase in millennials' expectations of themselves and of others.

These could range from the fact that Western cultures are increasingly encouraging a sense of competitiveness and stronger individualism, to "anxious and controlling parental practices."

Social media also seems to be an important factor when it comes to millennials' anxiety about body image and social integration, as unrealistic representations push the younger generations to seek unachievable, perfect bodies and increase the individuals' sense of isolation.

However, Curran adds that this theory needs to be confirmed by further research.

Too much pressure on millennials

Other factors, including ever-higher educational demands and the pressure to find a high-paying job, may also play a role in this generation's inflated sense of perfectionism.

The rise of meritocracy could also be to blame, Curran explains. "Meritocracy," he says, "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."

Thomas Curran

The researchers' data show that roughly half of high-school graduates in the 1976 cohort aimed to finish college. By 2008, more than 80 percent of high-school seniors expected to get a degree.

"These findings suggest that recent generations of college students have higher expectations of themselves and others than previous generations," Curran notes.

He adds, "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."

In their conclusion, Curran and Hill express their concern that millennials' high perfectionism levels may be to blame for the recent increase in mental illnesses that affect "a record number of young people."

Millennials "are experiencing higher levels of depression, anxiety, and suicide ideation than they did a decade ago," the study authors write.

Reflecting on this worrying context, Hill encourages schools and other social authorities to lighten the sense of competitiveness they normally incite among peers, considering the threats it may pose to mental health.