A report recently published by the American Psychological Association reveals that today’s college students are much more driven toward perfection than students of previous generations, and this may be having a negative impact on the mental health of young adults.
According to lead author Thomas Curran, this study is the first of its kind to examine how perfectionism has changed across generations. Curran and co-author Andrew Hill describe perfectionism as “an irrational desire to achieve along with being overly critical of oneself and others.”
The team analyzed data from over 40,000 American, Canadian, and British college students. They used samples from the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale from the late 1980s to 2016 to make comparisons across generations.
Three types of perfectionism were measured. Self-oriented perfectionism is an irrational desire to be perfect. Socially prescribed perfectionism is perceiving unrealistic expectations from peers, and other-oriented perfectionism is placing excessive standards on others.
The study revealed that recent generations of college students had substantially higher scores for all three types of perfectionism than earlier generations. Between 1989 and 2016, these scores increased by up to 33 percent.
Curran explained that this drive toward perfection is partly generated by a rise in meritocracy among millennials, as 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.”
The researchers pointed out that there are higher levels of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts among current students compared to a decade ago. Hill explained that the irrational desire to be perfect may be affecting the psychological health of students.
The research suggests that less competition among young people would help to preserve their mental health. The study is published in the journal Psychological Bulletin.