Happy New Year! In my first assembly of 2018 this week I spoke about the dangers of New Year resolutions and their tendency to make us overly-critical of ourselves. My sentiments were prompted by a recent new study that shows Millennials and children of Generation Z have become more obsessed with perfection than ever compared to previous generations. The drive to be perfect in body, mind and career among today’s college students has significantly increased compared with prior generations. This may be taking a toll on young people’s mental health, according to research published by the American Psychological Association: http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/bul-bul0000138.pdf.
Thomas Curran, of the University of Bath and his co-author Andrew Hill, of York St John University suggest that perfectionism entails “an irrational desire to achieve along with being overly critical of oneself and others.” They analyzed data from 41,641 American, Canadian and British college students from the late 1980s to 2016.
The study, published in the journal Psychological Bulletin, found that more recent generations of college students reported significantly higher scores for each form of perfectionism than earlier generations. The phenomenon is at its worst in the United States, the research states, and it involves multiple factors: self-oriented perfectionism, for instance, is the pressure a person puts on his or herself to be perfect. There is also socially prescribed perfectionism, which is the pressure a person feels from society, and other-oriented perfectionism, or the pressure people put on others. The rise among millennials is being driven by a number of factors, according to Curran. For example, raw data suggest that social media use pressures young adults to perfect themselves in comparison to others, which makes them dissatisfied with their bodies and increases social isolation, but the drive to earn money, pressure to get a good education and setting lofty career goals are other areas in which today’s young people exhibit perfectionism.
According to the study, “neoliberalism and its doctrine of meritocracy have combined to shape a culture in which everybody is expected to perfect themselves and their lifestyles, by striving to meet unrealistic achievement standards.” It adds that, for parents, this new culture confers an additional burden. On top of their own duty to succeed, they are also responsible for the successes and failures of their children.
Daisy Buchanan wrote a powerful op-ed piece in The Guardian on the study: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jan/05/perfectionism-mental-health-millennialsocial-media. She concludes: ‘Perfectionism can allow us to aim high and achieve great things. However, perfectionists are doomed to failure, because we set ourselves standards that are not attainable for humans. We will never meet our goals, to the detriment of our mental health and wellbeing. When we go online, we’re surrounded by platforms that appear to be full of other people meeting these goals. Intellectually, we know it’s all a lovely lie, but emotionally it’s a struggle. Feelings seem like facts. We need to protect future generations from perfectionism, and recognise that it’s not an advantage masquerading as a weakness. It’s destroying us, and making us desperately sad. I hope the new research inspires us all to check our perfectionist tendencies, and focus on our health and happiness instead. Perfection is a myth, but it can destroy us in ways that are all too real’. My only resolution for this year, then, is to do my very best to undermine the perfectionism myth at every opportunity in this school.