Many of us call them “snowflakes” and it could be that there is some truth to that statement. It seems that Millennials are suffering from higher levels of depression, anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts than past generations. There have been several reasons offered up as to explain this phenomenon, but none seemed very definitive until recently. A brand new study concluded that this new generation is more perfectionist than any before them, and these high levels of expectations are to blame. Researchers in the UK are the ones who reached these conclusions, and their results were posted in the publication Psychological Bulletin.
Changes in Societal Demands
Since the decade of the 1980s, governments in the UK, US, and Canada along with their respective societies have placed a big focus on individual improvements, both in social and economic spheres. Since that time, citizens living in these countries have worked on themselves, as they strived for self-improvement, especially when it comes to higher educational achievements and career attainments, and also a better social standing. But the question now is what was the cost for placing all the emphasis on those individual achievements?
Thomas Curran, who comes from the University of Bath, and also Andrew Hill, from the York St. John University, believe the results of all this pressure is reflected in the latest generation, which are the Millennials (ages 18-35). This new generation feels the burdens of perfectionisms which are unknown to their parents.
In their report, researchers defined perfectionism as “a combination of excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations.” It is not the simple perfectionism that most of us are familiar with that is harming the Millennials, they are being harmed by “multidimensional perfectionism,” which means these young folks are feeling pressure to live up to an expanding number of criteria. Trying to achieve a ridiculous standard will increase the risk of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and even suicide.
In order to perform this study, scientists gathered some 41,641 college students from the UK, US, and Canada. Each of them was asked to complete a test known as the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale. These tests come in three different types.
The first one addresses self-oriented perfectionism, which is a strong unrealistic need for a person to reach an outrageously ambitious goal. The second test addresses socially prescribed perfectionism which is the pressure from other people to reach the loftiest of goals, and the third test is other-oriented perfectionism, which is possessing unrealistic expectations of other people. This research also examined how perfectionism changed across the decades, starting in the 1980s.
The data indicated that Millennials suffered from all three kinds of perfectionism, and their scores were much higher than college students from past years. After comparing these scores with past scores, Hill and Curran discovered that the self-oriented perfectionism rose 10% from the years 1989 to 2016. The perfectionism that comes from external pressure rose 33% during the same time span. And the external perfectionism scores went up 16%.
So why such an increase? Higher levels of competitiveness, a prolonged individualistic focus, and overbearing parents could very well be the reason. Demands for higher educational levels and the need to get jobs that earn big salaries; have also led to inflated needs for perfection.
Another factor that is not helping is their neoliberal meritocratic views, and it comes at a big cost. “Meritocracy,” Curran stressed, “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.”
Only about 50% of all high school seniors who graduated in 1976 planned on graduating from college. By the year 2008, over 80% planned on getting a college degree. “These findings suggest that recent generations of college students have higher expectations of themselves and others than previous generations,” Curran noted. “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.”
Social media is also an influencing factor. When they see peers being portrayed with perfect bodies, accomplishing admirable goals, or enjoying great relationships, it only increases their feelings of insecurity, and then it cranks up the competitiveness and their desire to do better. The big drawback are these lead to various mental health issues, body shaming issues and even, total social isolation. Unfortunately, the study offers hardly any answers for taking the pressure away from Millennials, other than having professors, parents, and supervisors agreeing to lighten up on the pressure for increased performance – which is most likely not going to happen.
Curran and Hill concluded, “American, Canadian, and British cultures have become more individualistic, materialistic, and socially antagonistic over this period, with young people now facing more competitive environments, more unrealistic expectations, and more anxious and controlling parents than generations before.”
The sad truth is true perfection does not even exist. And our failures always teach us more than our successes do.