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THE INC. LIFE

Millennials Are Suffering an Epidemic of Perfectionism, Science Concludes

Yet another study punctures a popular myth about Millennials.

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BY Jessica Stillman - 10 Jan 2018

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Bashing millennials has become something of a national sport. My Inc.com colleague Geoffrey James, for instance, thinks young people need to get over their self-obsession, stop whining about the supposedly tough conditions they've faced, and just hunker down and pay their dues. *shakes fist at kids on his lawn*

Read his piece and the many, many like it and the picture that emerges is of a generation of entitled, whiny slackers, who are unwilling to put in a day of hard graft and expect a participation trophy for their every slapdash effort. It's a portrait that generates plenty of clicks, but there's just one problem with this characterization: mounting scientific evidence suggests it's wrong (also here, here, and here).

That's not enough for you? Then add a new study that should put the participation trophy myth to bed forever to the pile. When scientists recently analyzed data from surveys of 40,000 young people across 27 years they discovered that, far from being having low expectations for themselves, Millennials are actually the most perfectionist generation.

Perfectionism not participation trophies

The British study looked at a vast trove of data on college students from America, the UK, and Canada, and found a consistent pattern. Millennials everywhere not only had higher expectations for themselves than older generations, they also thought others had higher expectations for them, and expected more from those around them. Settling for a participation trophy was pretty much the opposite of their attitude.

What's behind this pattern? The bottom line is the researchers aren't sure, but they have a couple of suspects, according to a write-up of the findings on The Cut blog, including our increasingly brutal form of capitalism and helicopter parenting.

"According to one of the study authors -- Thomas Curran, Ph.D., of the University of Bath -- raw data suggest social media as one culprit," writes Leigh Cowart. "Other potentially influential cultural changes suggested by the study include the transition to free-market capitalism and competitive individualism, the rise of meritocracy, and an increase in anxious and controlling parenting."

Not happy news for Millennials

While there's a certain pleasure in puncturing myths about Millennials, in the end this study isn't happy news for young adults. No, they might not be content with producing middling work, but they're also not likely to be content with much else. Perfectionism isn't a good strategy for a well adjusted, joyful life.

"The study concludes that this increase in perfectionism may be negatively impacting the mental health of students today. Levels of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts have gone up in the last ten years," notes Cowart, as well as a great many others concerned about the mental health of young people.

While there are probably a few things Millennials themselves can do to beat back perfectionism (for the love of all that is holy, spend less time on social media, for instance), the underlying causes of this shift suggested by the study, including an increasingly terrifying scramble for a shrinking number of slots in the middle class, are something we're all going to have to address together.

In the meantime, maybe we should stop writing columns bashing Millennials for being stressed out about making it in the troubled world older generations have left them. And less insanely involved parenting and more humane bosses would probably help too.

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