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Are We Creating a Generation of Perfectionists?

A new study finds the problematic trait of perfectionism has significantly increased among college students since the late 1980s.

Perfectionism is something of a curse. Holding high expectations of yourself and others is positive to a point, but taken to an extreme, a no-mistakes-allowed mindset can freeze creativity, and increase the risk of depression, anxiety, and even suicide.

Well, the next generation may be in trouble. New research reports the pursuit of perfectionism has gradually increased among college students over the past quarter-century.

"These findings suggest that recent generations of college students have higher expectations of themselves and others than previous generations," lead author Thomas Curran of the University of Bath said in announcing the findings.

"Today's young people are competing with each other in order to meet societal pressures to succeed, and they feel perfectionism is necessary in order to feel safe, socially connected, and of worth."

In the journal Psychological Bulletin, Curran and his colleague Andrew Hill analyze the results of 164 surveys of American, Canadian, and British college students between 1989 and 2016. The participants—more than 41,000 in total—all completed the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale.

That survey was designed to measure three distinct varieties of perfectionism: self-oriented, which involves holding yourself to impossibly high standards; socially prescribed, in which you perceive that others have unreasonable expectations for you; and other-oriented, in which you place excessively high standards on others.

Specifically, they indicated the degree to which they agreed with statements such as "When I am working on something, I cannot relax until it is perfect"; "The better I do, the better I am expected to do"; and "I have high expectations for the people who are important to me."

The researchers report all three types of perfectionism rose over the years. Socially prescribed perfection—the uncomfortable impression that others are placing pressure on you to never screw up—saw the greatest increase since the late 1980s, going up a remarkable 33 percent.

"This finding suggests that young people are perceiving that their social context is increasingly demanding, that others judge them more harshly, and that they are increasingly inclined to display perfection as a means of securing approval," the researchers write.

Other-oriented perfectionism also rose substantially: sixteen percent over time. This indicates "more recent generations of college students appear to be imposing more demanding and unrealistic standards on those around them."

Self-oriented perfectionism—the tendency to beat oneself up over minor mistakes—saw the smallest increase of the three, rising 10 percent over the 27 years. This highly problematic trait appears to be "less affected by cultural shifts," Curran and Hill write.

They add, however, that American college students are more likely to hold themselves to unrealistic standards than their counterparts in the United Kingdom or Canada. This may be explained by "the especially strong individualistic and meritocratic culture in the U.S.," they speculate.

That said, income inequality is rising all around the Western world, which surely increases pressure on young people to be the best they can possibly be—and, perhaps, claw their way into the 1 percent.

"Generally, American, Canadian, and British cultures have become more individualistic, materialistic, and socially antagonistic over this period," the researchers write, "with young people now facing a more competitive environment, more unrealistic expectations, and more anxious and controlling parents than generations before."

Given that these trends are unlikely to go away any time soon, parents need to be aware of the pressures their kids are facing, and the mental-health issues they can create. Generation X seems to be doing pretty well, but the prognosis is problematic for Generation P.