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The Surprising Truth About Perfectionism in Millennials

New research shows that millennials are more perfectionistic than you may think.

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The idea that millennials are narcissists who can’t apply themselves to their work has gained popular recognition despite evidence to the contrary. Because their parents coddled them, so the argument goes, an entire generation of young people has become unable to fend for themselves. Additionally, because parents and teachers rewarded the millennial children for every effort, no matter how small, these young people growing up in the late 20th and early 21st century became unable to deal with any type of setback. When it comes to millennials, then, generation-bashing seems to be the popular mindset.

Labeling a generation with a name and then assuming that every member of that generation has the same personality has its dangers. Were all members of the “Greatest Generation” great? Are all Baby Boomers now fighting off the aging process, unwilling to accept the inevitable changes that occur in later life? Did they all turn on and tune out when they were young people? Are all Gen-X'ers equally stressed and miserable now? When they were younger, were they all slackers who rebelled against everything their parents did? Whatever generation you classify yourself as occupying, when you think about the people who are roughly the same age as you are, do you see each and every one of you as the same?

Despite the fallacy of assuming that everyone born in the same era has the same characteristics, there is some truth to the notion that everyone who lives in a certain historical era is affected by what’s going on around them in the world at large. Social and political influences create a certain socially shared reality, and their effects trickle down to your very own neighborhood, school, and family. When you're in the process of defining your identity, these effects might shape your very sense of self. With this idea in mind, University of Bath’s Thomas Curran and York St. John University’s Andrew Hill (2019) used a research method involving generational comparisons to explore social trends in perfectionism. The British researchers believed that the “tougher social and economic conditions” (p. 410) faced by young people now, as compared to their parents, might be creating an environment that fosters the need to be perfect during their formative years.

As part of their theoretical rationale, Curran and Hill note that "the watchful eye of increasingly demanding parents" might contribute to the growth of this personality trait. Defining perfectionism as an “achievement and relational trait” which involves “high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations” (p. 410), the authors also note that it has multiple dimensions. As a personality trait, it is a quality that varies among individuals, so any generational trends by definition must also show variation from person to person. It is important to keep this in mind when examining the generational trends that Curran and Hill reported from their study.

Delving further into the definition of perfectionism, think about the times you’ve exhibited at least some of this quality. Perhaps you were baking a cake for a relative’s birthday. Everything was going fine until you reached the final stages as you began the delicate decoration process. Instead of icing coming out of the decorating tube in a nice, steady stream, all that came out of the nozzle was a drizzly goop. Your cake is now a mess. How will you approach the problem? If you want the cake to reflect your personal best, so that you can take pride in it, you’ll feel that the only way forward now is to start the cake all over again from scratch. Another possibility is that you don’t mind a few smears here and there, but your hyper-judgmental aunt will regard anything other than bakery-shop quality as a reflection of your lackadaisical approach to life. You don’t want to disappoint her, so you go back to square one. Now imagine that you’re at that party, but someone else baked the cake. The lettering is crooked, and there are a few random drips of icing that seem to have slid off the top. With your own high standards, you know that you would never allow such a messy effort to see the light of day.

Curran and Hill, noting the three sides to perfectionism, investigated generational trends from the standpoint of scores on self-oriented, socially prescribed, and other-oriented sub-dimensions. People who are high in self-oriented perfectionism will “hold unrealistic expectations of themselves, and are punitive in their self-evaluations.” Being high in socially prescribed perfectionism means that you "believe their social context is excessively demanding, that others judge them harshly, and they must display perfection to secure approval." Those who are high in other-oriented perfectionism “impose unrealistic standards on those around them and evaluate others critically” (p. 410).

Apart from whatever parental influences might breed children high in perfectionism, the British authors regard broad cultural influences as factors that deserve study in their own right. Perfectionism, then, can amount to a "cultural phenomenon” (p. 411). In part, the authors base their argument on somewhat refuted evidence regarding the higher narcissism levels of millennials, but setting this aside, the examination of broad cultural influences on an entire generation is consistent with models of lifespan development. People can vary within a generation, as proposed by lifespan theories, but when you grow up in a given time and place in history, you face similar challenges as your peers. For example, Curran and Hill point out that “neoliberalism” has become one of these broad social influences. Its effect on perfectionism develops by fostering competition in the search for individual achievement. You need to be perfect, because you need to be better than everyone else.

Additionally, the need to appear perfect has become a prominent Western cultural value, due to the pervasive nature of social media. Again, everyone who is exposed to these influences can be affected, but young adults are vulnerable to constructing “a flawed and disordered sense of self . . . overwhelmed by pathological worry and a fear of negative social evaluation characterized by a focus on deficiencies, and sensitive to criticism and failure” (pp. 413-414).

The current generation of parents can be seen as responding in kind to the pressure to produce children who meet society's unrealistic standards. Their tendency to “over-parent,” as some have charged them with, may be seen not as a narcissistic attempt to have their children reflect themselves, but perhaps the more universally held value among parents to have happy children who will do well in life.

To test the hypothesis that the current culture is producing a new breed of perfectionistic young people, Curran and Hill conducted a broad-sweeping review of published studies, theses, and unpublished data sets in which the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale was administered to college or university student samples between the years of 1989 and 2017. The search produced a final set of 164 samples involving 41,641 students from the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.

The findings revealed that, as the authors predicted, there were discernible trends in all three components of perfectionism, but the two most apparent increases were for socially prescribed and other-oriented. In applying standards of other people’s perfectionism to themselves, in the words of the authors, young adults “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” (p. 420). Perhaps as the flip side of this, college students increasingly hold other people to the same high standards they apply to themselves. There were intriguing between-country effects, however, suggesting that these processes are sensitive to whatever national trends interact with historical changes.

An important qualification to note is that self-oriented perfectionism actually remained relatively stable. It was the relational components of this personality trait that appeared to be particularly sensitive to cultural and historical change. By the same token, the relationship was anything but perfect. There were studies done in the 1990s in which perfectionism scores were as high, or even higher, than studies conducted in the 2010s. Moreover, the findings apply only to college students, not all millennials by any means. It is possible that a large number of people entering the college competition market inflates the drive toward perfectionism, including the need for parents to produce children who will achieve their educational goals. It also would have been helpful to examine perfectionism in older generations to determine whether the results were specific to young adults, or whether the demands for perfection were a more general cultural phenomenon.

To sum up, the current study reinforces the need to examine multiple factors that influence developmental change. An entire generation does not, and cannot by definition, share identical personality attributes. The cultural influences highlighted in the British research show that your ability to be happy with yourself depends in part, but not entirely, on the happenstance of when you were born.

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Curran, T., & Hill, A. P. (2019). Perfectionism is increasing over time: A meta-analysis of birth cohort differences from 1989 to 2016. Psychological Bulletin, 145(4), 410–429. doi:10.1037/bul0000138