The Generation Gap: Rise of Perfectionism across Birth Cohorts

The internet today is flooded with articles that talk about a fast-growing burnout culture among young people, with college students reporting higher levels of mental health issues, like anxiety and depression. While it is yet to be seen if research supports this idea of higher rates of youth burnout, it might do well to understand the changes in psychological factors that may be contributing to this idea. One of such factors is perfectionism. In this article, I attempt to explore the intricacies of this increasingly common characteristic and the cultural factors surrounding it.

Broadly, perfectionism is understood as a need to strive for excellence or flawlessness. Perfectionism can be divided into two categories- adaptive (normal) and maladaptive (neurotic). Adaptive perfectionists are driven to achieve goals, but set realistic standards for themselves. Maladaptive perfectionists, on the other hand, have unrealistic expectations of themselves and perceive their efforts as falling short at all times. In other words, maladaptive perfectionists perceive failure as a sign of personal weakness or inability. Consequently, they tend to report lower self-esteem and higher levels of anxiety and depression. 

In a recently published research, researchers Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill found that perfectionism has increased over generations. The researchers described perfectionism in terms of three dimensions- self-oriented, other-oriented, and socially prescribed. Self-oriented perfectionism refers to having unrealistic expectations of oneself, whereas other-oriented perfectionism involves projecting unrealistic standards on those around oneself. Socially prescribed perfectionism, on the other hand, refers to one’s perception of others’ expectations of them. Using a sample of British, American, and Canadian college students, the researchers found that more recent generations reported higher scores on all three dimensions. Of the three, a significantly larger increase was observed for socially prescribed perfectionism. This finding suggests that young people today perceive their social context as increasingly difficult to deal with and struggle to meet its demands. They perceive others as being overly critical of them and are thus, more sensitive to external pressures. 

This dimension of perfectionism is especially important in the Indian context, considering the value placed on family expectations and academic or professional achievements. For instance, Asians show higher levels of maladaptive perfectionism, as compared to other ethnic groups. A study conducted with Asian Indian students in the USA found that among the many values this group held, the value of “Family Recognition through Achievement” was most strongly associated with perfectionism. Essentially, this is the value of bringing pride to one’s family through personal accomplishments. Individuals who reported having this value were more likely to display maladaptive perfectionism. This, in turn, implies that these individuals are likely to show low self esteem and higher levels of anxiety and depression. Further, this study also found that more recent generations of Asian Indians were more likely to display maladaptive perfectionism. This highlights the differences in expectations of parents and children and the results of conditional appreciation, i.e., being rewarded only when one achieves something that is in line with parental expectations. 

A potential cause for this rise in socially prescribed perfectionism in the Indian context is the importance given to family expectations and the collectivistic tendencies of Indian society. In India, academic and occupational achievements are considered to bring pride to the entire family and help improve its social status. Younger generations might then internalise family expectations, often leading to a conflict between personal and familial standards of achievement. This form of perfectionism is also linked with mental health issues like depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation, because of these very discrepancies. A 2012 study conducted with students in the University of Delhi found that maladaptive perfectionists reported higher levels of depression. Perfectionism in this form proves extremely debilitating to individuals because they perceive external expectations as unjust and overly demanding, leading them to have a greater number of perceived failures and more negative affect experiences. Additionally, research studying birth cohort differences has also found that anxiety and neuroticism have increased over generations. This study found that anxiety has been increasing in a linear manner since the 1950’s. These findings are relevant, since anxiety and neuroticism are significant vulnerabilities linked with increased perfectionism.

Both perfectionism and neuroticism research focus on the broader socio-cultural environment as a potential explanation for these changes. According to Curran and Hill, perfectionism is a product of internalization of overt and covert social messages. They attribute this rise to the increasingly competitive environment, that thrives on social comparison and values economic achievement. With greater competition, skills and education hold value only if they possess economic merit. Young people thus, have no choice but to set higher standards for themselves. Social media furthers this notion by encouraging comparison and increasing dissatisfaction with oneself. Thus, perfectionism is not just accepted in this environment. It is encouraged and reinforced every step of the way. When placed in the Indian context, additional factors like collectivism, family obligations, and discrepancies between personal and family expectations inevitably find their way in. 

While perfectionism can be adaptive and even advantageous in measured doses, in an increasingly competitive social context, researchers emphasize the importance of setting realistic goals and allowing oneself a sense of satisfaction in achievements. It only goes to show that in a difficult environment, savouring our wins can be more rewarding than we think.

Arundhati Ail