New research suggests the desire to be perfect in body, mind, and career may be taking a toll on college students’ mental health. Investigators discovered the excessive desire to succeed and compete with others has significantly increased compared with prior generations.
This study is the first to examine group generational differences in perfectionism, according to lead author Thomas Curran, Ph.D., of the University of Bath. He and his co-author Andrew Hill, Ph.D., of York St. John University suggest that perfectionism entails “an irrational desire to achieve along with being overly critical of oneself and others.”
The researchers analyzed data from 41,641 American, Canadian, and British college students from 164 samples who completed the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale, a test for generational changes in perfectionism, from the late 1980s to 2016.
Three types of perfectionism were assessed: self-oriented, or an irrational desire to be perfect; socially prescribed, or perceiving excessive expectations from others; and other-oriented, or placing unrealistic standards on others.
The study, published in the journal Psychological Bulletin, found that more recent generations of college students reported significantly higher scores for each form of perfectionism than earlier generations.
Specifically, between 1989 and 2016, the self-oriented perfectionism score increased by 10 percent, socially prescribed increased by 33 percent, and other-oriented increased by 16 percent.
The rise in perfectionism among millennials is being driven by a number of factors, according to Curran. One relatively new factor involves exposure to social media; data suggests social media may pressure young adult to excessively compare themselves to others, which makes them dissatisfied with their bodies and increases social isolation.
This has not been tested and further research is needed to confirm this, said Curran. The drive to earn money, pressure to get a good education, and setting lofty career goals are other areas in which today’s young people exhibit perfectionism.
Completion and merit based evaluations are also encouraged in academia. Curran cites college students’ drive to perfect their grade point averages and compare them to their peers.
These examples represent a rise in meritocracy among millennials, in which universities encourage competition among students to move up the social and economic ladder.
“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.”
Approximately half of high school seniors in 1976 expected to earn a college degree and by 2008, that number had risen to over 80 percent. Yet, numbers of those earning degrees has failed to keep pace with rising expectations, according to Curran.
The gap between the percentage of high school seniors expecting to earn a college degree and those with one doubled between 1976 and 2000 and has continued to rise.
“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.”