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Young People’s Need To Be Perfect Has Risen By A Third In The Last 30 Years


Madison Dapcevich


Madison Dapcevich

Freelance Writer and Fact-Checker

Madison is a freelance science reporter and full-time fact-checker based in the wild Rocky Mountains of western Montana.

Freelance Writer and Fact-Checker

Perfectionism, an irrational desire to be perfect, has been linked to a number of physical and mental illnesses including suicide, depression, anxiety, stress, chronic pain, and anorexia. Kichigan/Shutterstock.

Are you obsessed with the perfect selfie? Do you frequently suffer from vacay #FOMO? If so, you're not alone!

When compared with previous generations, an obsession in young people to be – or at least appear to be – perfect has risen by more than a third in the last 30 years, according to research published by the American Psychological Association. This drive for perfection could be taking a toll on mental and physical health.


Researchers define perfectionism as an irrational desire to achieve, along with being overly critical of oneself and others. This manifests as excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations. Statistics show higher levels of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts in young people than a decade ago, with self-oriented perfectionism being positively associated with clinical depression, anorexia, and chronic pain.

Developed in 1991, the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale tests for generational changes in perfectionism. Researchers looked at 41,641 American, Canadian and British college students from 146 samples between the 1980s and 2016 to categorize college-age adults into three tiers of perfectionism. They found a 33 percent increase in young adults feeling pressured by external social factors; an excessively demanding environment with harshly judging peers. 

The study also found young adults who impose unrealistic standards has increased by 16 percent, leading to unfulfilled relationships, and a 10 percent increase in a personal irrational desire to be perfect. These trends remain the same when controlling for gender and between-country differences in scores. 

Research published by the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests adolescents are more likely to be negatively impacted by social media use because of their limited capacity for self-regulation and susceptibility to peer. Photo by Nelen/Shutterstock.

Turns out, social media and educational standards might be to blame.


Lead author Thomas Curran, PhD of the University of Bath, suggests cultural changes coincide with changes in personalities. Raw data shows this rise is driven by a number of factors, citing social media pressures to be perfect in comparison with others. While this theory needs further testing, researchers suggest increased social media use instills, among other things, negative body images that can lead to social isolation.

Curran also blames a neoliberal approach to education that pressures students to compete with one another beginning at an early age. 

"Meritocracy places a strong need for young people to strive, perform and achieve in modern life," said Curran in a statement. "Young people are responding by reporting increasingly unrealistic educational and professional expectations for themselves. As a result, perfectionism is rising among millennials." 

More young adults are enrolled in college than ever before. In 1976, half of high school seniors were expected to earn a college degree. That number rose to 80 percent by 2008


So where does the pressure to be perfect differ from ambition?

Previous research suggests it is not just about a strive to perfect grade point averages, the drive to earn money, or a desire to move up the social and economic ladder. Rather, it comes from a method of teaching aimed to at hitting standardized testing benchmarks rather than focusing on understanding and independent thinking.

"These findings suggest that recent generations of college students have higher expectations of themselves and others than previous generations," said Curran. "Today's young people are competing with each other in order to meet societal pressures to succeed and they feel that perfectionism is necessary in order to feel safe, socially connected and of worth."

Co-author Andrew Hill, PhD of York St John University, urges schools and policymakers to curb fostering competition among young people in order to preserve good mental health.


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