Node Smith, ND
First Study to Look at Generational Differences in Perfectionism
According to a new study by the American Psychological Association, today’s college students are more likely to push themselves to be perfect in mind, body, and career than in past generations.1 This inclination may have consequences on the mental health of this younger generation. This is the first study to look at generational differences in perfectionism.
Dr. Thomas Curran, the study’s lead author defines perfectionism as:
“an irrational desire to achieve along with being overly critical of oneself and others.”
The study included 41,641 college students from Canada, United States, and British colleges from 164 samples. The students had all completed a test for changes in perfectionism across generations, called the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale. The study has been collecting data between the late 1980’s and 2016.
Three separate kinds of perfectionism were measured:
1) self-oriented, or an irrational desire to actually be perfect
2) socially prescribed, or the perceiving excessive expectations from others
3) other-oriented, or having unrealistic expectations for others
Recent Generations of Students Scored Higher for Every Type of Perfectionism
The study showed that recent generations of students scored higher for every type of perfectionism. Since 1989 scores of self-oriented perfectionism increased by 10%, socially prescribed increased by 33% and other-oriented increased by 16%.
The authors of this study raise an interesting point in accounting for this data. Younger people are under a constant pressure from social media to present a “more perfect” self to the world, as well as compare oneself to others. Dr. Curran comments: “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.”
Other Areas Where Perfectionism is Displayed
Other areas where younger individuals seem to display perfectionism are career success, the pressure to acquire good education, and earning more money. Current and recent students also display an increased need to achieve perfect grades and compare these with their peers. It’s an example of a “buy in” to the perception that good grades and good colleges are the only way to compete and move up the social and economic ladder.
This Could be Contributing Factor in Increased Depression, Anxiety, and Other Mental Health Issues Among Younger Population
To give some contextual numbers to these findings, in 1976, only about 50% of high-school seniors expected to gain college degrees. By 2008, the number of students expected to earn a college degree is more than 80%. However, the gap between the expectation and how many degrees are awarded has actually increased. So, the urge to be perfect in society’s eye, has not led to an increase in what society sees as perfect. This very well could be a contributing factor to the increase in depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders in the current young adult population.
Reducing Pressure for Students to Attend Traditional Colleges May Help Lower Rates of Mental Health Concerns in this Generation
The authors of the study urge policy makers and high-school administration to consider diminishing the relentless pressure for students to go into conventional colleges after high school, and thereby help lower the rate of perfectionism and mental health concerns in this population.
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Node Smith, ND, is a naturopathic physician in Portland, OR and associate editor for NDNR. He has been instrumental in maintaining a firm connection to the philosophy and heritage of naturopathic medicine among the next generation of docs. He helped found the first multi-generational experiential retreat, which brings elders, alumni, and students together for a weekend camp-out where naturopathic medicine and medical philosophy are experienced in nature. Four years ago he helped found the non-profit, Association for Naturopathic ReVitalization (ANR), for which he serves as the board chairman. ANR has a mission to inspire health practitioners to embody the naturopathic principles through experiential education. Node also has a firm belief that the next era of naturopathic medicine will see a resurgence of in-patient facilities which use fasting, earthing, hydrotherapy and homeopathy to bring people back from chronic diseases of modern living; he is involved in numerous conversations and projects to bring about this vision.