You've heard it over and over: Millennials are lazy and entitled, the spoiled, ambitionless products of a culture where everyone got a participation trophy for doing the absolute minimum. But previous research has shown that contrary to common perception, millennials actually strive for advancement in the workplace, have a desire to keep learning, and are willing to break ties with companies that don't provide them with meaningful opportunities. And now a new study, published Dec. 28 in the journal Psychological Bulletin, shows that in fact, millennials are actually bigger perfectionists than previous generations ever were, and that demand for high performance is taking a toll on our mental health.
According to psychiatrist Monika Roots, Vice President of Health Services and Senior Medical Director of Behavioral Health at Teladoc, this isn't quite a surprise. "Perfectionism is a common trait among my millennial patients," she says. She also agrees that millennials tend to be more socially conscious. As a result, our self-oriented perfectionism causes us to try to project to others that we are leading perfect lives, whether that's with a carefully crafted Instagram snap or self-editing our Twitter timelines to make sure we don't tweet anything that may reflect negatively on us.
The report, which was conducted by Thomas Curran and Andrew P. Hill, is the culmination of 27 years of observation and involves data from 164 samples and 41,641 college students in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. They considered three types of perfectionism: "self-oriented, or an irrational desire to be perfect; socially prescribed, or perceiving excessive expectations from others; and other-oriented, or putting unrealistic standards on others," Refinery29 reported. According to the report, analysis of the data revealed that the amount of pressure we put on ourselves to be perfect has increased, and that that increase stayed consistent when the study was controlled for gender and geographical differences.
That means "recent generations of young people perceive that others are more demanding of them, are more demanding of others, and more demanding of themselves," the authors concluded. They also noted that "cultures have become more individualistic, materialistic, and socially antagonistic over this period, with young people now facing more competitive environments."
Unfortunately, since this core need for perfection is widespread, it's turned into a kind of social media "keeping up with the Joneses" that's focused on who's happiest, who's more successful, and who's more perfect. It's a constantly cycle where the pressure to be flawless trades hands like cash. This "need to compare oneself," as Roots puts it, also means many millennials struggle with self-reliance — our ability to trust in and our own knowledge and skills.
The "Joneses" antagonistic perfectionism is wildly different from the healthy kind of perfectionism, which yes, does exist, and when it does, stems from an exclusively internal desire to improve oneself, Roots says. "For example, making (and keeping) New Year's resolutions to start a healthy eating and exercise regime, travel more, etc, are positive, especially when a person can be accepting of challenges and bounce back from setbacks."
Of course, we should also have a supportive network, Roots says. "[Surround] yourself with people who are supportive and who make you feel comfortable and at ease in your own skin," she explans. "You are going to encounter setbacks, and things will not always be perfect, and it is important to be resilient and accepting of yourself and challenges you may face."
As a '90s kid, I know all about the pressure millennials faced growing up. The push from parents to constantly be the best in class, to participate in every extracurricular, polish our college applications as high school sophomores and have a GPA loaded with so many weighted honors scores the top colleges can't help but accept us. In a generation of perfectionism, our slightest fault or weakness, whether real or perceived, can take us down. Millennials aren't lazy or unambitious. We're not afraid to work. We're just afraid we won't do that work perfectly.