Millennials are more perfectionist than other generations, but it’s not their fault

Make it look perfect.
Make it look perfect.
Image: Reuters/Stefano Rellandini
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If you’re a professional of a certain age, you may have noticed young recruits arriving at your company seemingly more gung-ho, more eager, more fastidious, with every passing year. Their resumés are loaded with internships and awards, their ambitious creative projects have been celebrated in their local paper.

Millennials, you may have thought to yourself, you’ve gotta chill out.

Okay, obviously I’m talking about my own observations as a Gen Xer in the workforce, but I suspect I’m not alone. And now there’s evidence that I’m not entirely imagining the differences I’ve been seeing, either. According to a new study from a pair of UK psychologists, perfectionism—which breeds tendencies to be overly self-critical—is increasingly more common with every generation of college students, and it isn’t healthy.

Perfectionism may sound like a positive asset in an employee, but it is also a creativity killer and it’s been linked to higher rates of burnout.

Thomas Curran, a social psychologist from the University of Bath, and Andrew Hill, a professor of sports psychology at York St. John University, analyzed data from more than 246 studies published between 1989 to 2016, and representing more than 40,000 American, British, and Canadian college students.

Specifically, the study focused on data from one standardized survey that measures three forms of perfectionism: self-oriented perfectionism (when a person feels an intrinsic drive to reach unrealistic goals), socially prescribed perfectionism (when someone feels other people, such as family or peers, expect them to be as flawless and equate being perfect with being deserving of love) and other-oriented perfectionism (when a person judges others in their social circles, holding them up to impossible standards).

Since 1989, the authors report, survey scores indicating high levels of self-oriented perfectionism have increased by 10%, and those indicating other-oriented perfectionism have increased by 16%.  Socially prescribed perfectionism, meanwhile, has spiked by 33%.

Between the three countries, there was some variation in the kind of perfectionism that has become more prevalent. In the US, the largest rise was seen in the self-oriented type of perfectionism, but among Canadian and UK students, it’s socially prescribed perfectionism, which is considered most debilitating, that’s now markedly more common. The authors suspect that difference may be related to the relatively more communal values of Canadian and UK societies, which would make individuals sensitive to the how they believe they’re perceived by others.

In fact, it is cultural norms—or more accurately, the changes in cultural norms—in all three countries that have likely led to the generational differences in perfectionism, according to Curran and Hill, who subscribe to a psychological theory  that connects personality differences across time to the dominant social environment of different eras. If younger people are more narcissistic and less empathetic than previous generations were at the same age, as some studies have also suggested, these personality traits ought to be seen as a product of their time, not some innate weakness in newly made humans.

The authors propose that three particular cultural shifts have sparked the rise of perfectionism. First, since the 1970s, the US, Canada, and the UK have seen their economies pivot toward neoliberalism, an ideology that emphasizes free market economics and thus naturally creates pressures on young people to remain competitive with their peers. They need to get the better grades, the best degrees, and more prestigious jobs to be deemed worthy of wealth and status.

This competition plays out on and is reinforced by social media, the authors add. The explosion of personal branding rituals—the posting of selfies and status updates announcing new relationships, strong grades, or promotions—exposes everyone to idealized versions of their peers, making college students feel that others are racing ahead, closing in on the perfect life.

What’s more, college students have increasingly bought into the idea that one gets ahead in life based on merit, they add. That faulty belief system would naturally set a person up to strive for perfection in themselves, and blame their own shortcomings for any failures.

Lastly, the researchers point to parents as complicit in this evolving problem. Citing studies about the amount of time parents are now spending on their kids’ academic careers, the authors argue that parents, too, are competing with each other and saddling their children with high expectations.

For managers, the study results might signal a need to pay more attention to the wellbeing of the youngest workers. Exploiting the extreme zeal of fresh-faced employees is a time-honored corporate tradition, but it might be more prudent (and humane) to make sure those newbies are feeling supported, that they know it’s okay to take chances and fail.