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It ain’t your granddaddy’s ‘perfect’: How the idea of perfectionism has changed generationally

Jessica Ramirez-Vasquez and Arturo Jr. Cuevas talk about what stresses them out in life and at school.
Jessica Ramirez-Vasquez and Arturo Jr. Cuevas talk about what stresses them out in life and at school.
Mae Ryan/KPCC

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Most of us probably know of at least one person in our lives who we’d classify as a “perfectionist.”

Maybe it’s the traditional type of person who holds him or herself to impossibly high standards, maybe it’s someone who has to live up to the expectations they perceive society has for them, or maybe it’s someone who holds others to an unattainable level. Whatever the category, one thing is clear: perfectionism, especially among millennials and college students, is on the rise over the last couple of decades.

How do we know this? Well, part of it is a logical extension of the ever-increasing competitiveness of college admissions, but we also have data to back it up. A meta-analysis published last year in the journal Psychological Bulletin showed higher levels of perfectionism among American, Canadian and British college students now than during the 2000s or 1990s.

Are we more perfectionist as individuals today than we were 10 or 20 years ago? If so, what are the factors driving the increase? How has the competitive college admissions environment increased perfectionism among millennials and young people? How do you manage your own perfectionist tendencies on a day-to-day basis? Has your ethnic background or cultural upbringing played a part in how much of a “perfectionist” you are or aren’t? How have those tendencies changed with your age?


Thomas Curran, social psychologist and lecturer in the Center for Motivation and Health Behavior Change at University of Bath in England; he co-authored the meta-analysis “Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time: A Meta-Analysis of Birth Cohort Differences From 1989 to 2016” (Psychological Bulletin, December 2017)