The cohort study from health researchers in our Department for Health with colleagues at York St John University found that recent generations of young people in the UK, US and Canada reported substantially higher rates of perfectionism than previous generations at the same period of life.

The authors of the study, published 2 January in the journal Psychological Bulletin, suggest that their findings point to the impact of three decades of neoliberalism which has forced young people to compete against one another under the auspices of meritocracy and the watchful eye of increasingly demanding parents.

Defining perfectionism

Perfectionism is broadly defined as a combination of excessively high personal standards and overly harsh self-criticism. This can generate severe psychological difficulties and the researchers suggest these latest findings are significant in view of the growing mental health challenge currently affecting young people.

By analysing data from over 40,000 America, Canadian and British university students from 1989 to 2017, they show that levels of perfectionism are rising substantially. This includes evidence that:

  • The extent to which young people attach an irrational importance to being perfect, hold unrealistic expectations of themselves, and are highly self-critical has increased by 10%
  • The extent to which young people impose unrealistic standards on those around them and evaluate others critically has increased by 16%
  • The extent to which young people perceive that their environment is excessively demanding, that others judge them harshly, and that they must display perfection to secure approval has risen by 33%.

Increased competition for young people

Lead author, Dr Thomas Curran from the University's Department for Health, explained: “Rising rates of perfectionism highlighted in this study coincide with three decades of neoliberalism, which has compelled young people to compete against each other within increasingly demanding social and economic parameters.

“We hope that organisations who are directly responsible for safeguarding the welfare of young people, such as schools and universities, and policy-makers who shape the environments in which these organisations operate, resist the promotion of competitiveness at the expense of young people’s psychological health.”

Co-author Dr Andrew Hill of York St John University added: “The increase in mental health difficulties among young people makes for a compelling backdrop for our findings. It may be that higher levels of perfectionism is a key contributing factor to such difficulties. Young people are trying to find ways to cope with a sense of increasing demands being placed on them and they are responding by becoming more perfectionistic towards themselves and others.”

The authors suggest a correlation between neoliberal governance in the US, Canada and the UK from the 1980s onwards with growing perfectionism across all three countries. Neoliberalism, they argue, has emphasised competitive individualism and people have responded by agitating to perfect themselves and their lifestyles.

Previous work from the research team looked at the growing relationship between perfectionism and burnout.

Dr Curran in The Conversation How perfectionism became a hidden epidemic among young people

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