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Caroline Beaton
Caroline Beaton

Why Millennials Are Obsessed With Self-improvement

We’re safe, full, vaccinated, and connected to the Internet. Now what?

Millennials may be perceived as narcissistic, lazy, entitled, and fragile, but we’re more determined to improve ourselves than the generations calling us that.

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In 2015, 94 percent of millennials reported making personal improvement commitments (compared with 84 percent of Boomers and 81 percent of Gen Xers). And we’re willing to pay the price: While Boomers said they’d spend an average of $152 a month on self-improvement, millennials anticipated spending nearly twice that—though our average income is half as much. Our strategies range from new workout regimes and diet plans to life coaching, therapy, and apps designed to improve well-being.

This is why Boston-based consulting agency BrightHouse recently asked me: “Why are millennials so obsessed with ‘getting better’ or becoming ‘more exceptional’?”

It’s a pertinent question for companies seeking to reach Gen Y and cater to what we care about. Self-improvement is, after all, a $10 billion per year business in the U.S. alone and one of the few industries that doesn’t plummet in the throes of a recession. But it’s also relevant to millennials themselves, who anxiously wonder if they’ll ever be good enough.

For both millennials and the businesses trying to engage them, here were my answers:

1. We’re spoiled with possibility.

The vast majority of American millennials have our basic needs, like food, shelter, and security, consistently fulfilled. We now enjoy (and suffer from) the unprecedented luxury of choosing from an ever-expanding selection of consumer goods, media content, career possibilities, romantic partners, living spaces, lifestyles, educational pursuits, and diets.

With these options comes the opportunity to pursue our purpose in infinite ways. This may be why the catch-phrase “follow your passion” has exploded in the last 20 years. We’re safe, full, vaccinated, and connected to the Internet. Now what?

According to A.H. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we’re ready to self-actualize. No excuses. But that’s a lot of pressure.

2. We’re haunted by our own expectations.

We don’t need research to tell us (though it does) that Gen Y is idealistic. Our expectations are, in fact, higher than any other generation’s ever were. “Unfortunately,” muses Tim Urban from Wait But Why, “the funny thing about the world is that it turns out to not be that easy of a place, and the weird thing about careers is that they’re actually quite hard.”

And, contrary to stereotypes that millennials have inflated views of ourselves, we know when we’re failing. According to a study by Leadership IQ, just 28 percent of millennials think their communication skills are better than their peers’ (in contrast to 42 percent of 50-year-olds who think so). Likewise, only 35 percent of millennials think their writing skills surpass their peers’—compared to 49 percent of 60-year-olds who do.

Our impractical expectations, coupled with our realistic, or even overly critical, performance self-assessment, produce a gap between how we’re doing and how we think we should or could be doing. Our unmet ambition fuels our self-improvement fixation.

3. We’re taunted by everyone else.

Our conviction that we don’t measure up is exacerbated by an online world casting exactly that illusion. Google “millennials,” and you’ll encounter articles such as “The Most Narcissistic Generation,” “7 Reasons Millennials Are the Worst Generation,” and “The Me Me Me Generation.” We’ve been called Generation Me, iGen, Generation WTF, divas, Millies, and Gen Y Protagonists and Special Yuppies.

In one Vanity Fair article, James Wolcott writes, “Millies require a constant drizzle of compliments and acknowledgments—strokings and pokings—to remain motivated or at least stop fidgeting.” We feel compelled, perhaps subconsciously, to disprove the stereotype.

Meanwhile, 75 percent of millennials use social media (and that was in 2010), and every one of them sees other millennials succeeding in high contrast. By crafting our social media accounts to parade only the most flattering, impressive aspects of our lives, we’ve made ourselves all false poster children. As a result, we feel envious, inadequate, and, for better or worse, motivated to be better.

Fortunately, our obsession pays off. Millennials don’t just make more resolutions; we keep them. In 2014, 76 percent of millennials reported that they kept their New Year's resolutions, compared to 60 percent of Boomers. We’re also, according to one study, better able (and more eager) to convert training to tangible progress than Gen X.

Is our self-improving a good thing? We may constantly be grasping at straws, improved but insatiable: perpetually disappointed. Or perhaps we’ve encountered the optimal conditions to make a dent in the world and never quit. It’s an individual answer.

This post also appeared on Forbes.

About the Author
Caroline Beaton

Caroline Beaton is a freelance journalist based in Denver. Her writing on psychology, health and culture has appeared in the Atlantic, Vice, Forbes and elsewhere.

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