The Unattainable Perfectionism of Millennials

The Unattainable Perfectionism of Millennials September 17, 2018

The young adults of the Millennial generation are showing a higher rate of mental problems than previous generations.  A study says that the problem is perfectionism and their inability to attain it.

As Rachel Genevieve Chia reports, “A study on the topic shows this phenomenon is unique to millennials, who are under immense pressure from always being ‘sifted, sorted and ranked’– in exams, job performance assessments, or on social media, where they feel compelled to curate a perfect life.”

As a result, they are subject to depression, anxiety, anorexia, and suicide.  And I would add “cutting” and other kinds of self-harm, including self-destructive behavior.

Researchers Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill discuss their findings in The rise of perfectionism is negatively affecting young people, World Economic Forum.  Here is a link to their study , which looks at young adults not just in the United States but also in Canada and the United Kingdom.

Here is their definition of perfectionism:

Broadly speaking, perfectionism is an irrational desire for flawlessness, combined with harsh self-criticism. But on a deeper level, what sets a perfectionist apart from someone who is simply diligent or hard-working is a single-minded need to correct their own imperfections.

Perfectionists need to be told that they have achieved the best possible outcomes, whether that’s through scores and metrics, or other peoples’ approval. When this need is not met, they experience psychological turmoil, because they equate mistakes and failure to inner weakness and unworthiness.

Curran and Hill, rather absurdly in my opinion, speculate that “neoliberalism” is to blame–that is, the free market capitalism of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher–which supposedly created such a sense of competition that those who fail in the market place assume that something is wrong with them.
A much better explanation, I would argue, is the eclipse of Christianity in this demographic.  Those who know nothing of grace, God’s love, or Christ’s redemption are thrown back upon themselves and their own resources to attain enough “merit” to perfect themselves.
Yes, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).  Because we continually fail to attain that perfection, we need God’s perfection given to us  This is what happens through faith in Jesus Christ, perfect God and perfect Man, who bears our imperfections and covers us with His perfection.
This would seem to be a generation that not only desperately needs the Gospel but is ripe for harvest (John 4:35).  I suspect, though, that much of Millennial’s perfectionism is concern for their image, their success, their peer acceptance, and their social media presence.  As opposed to a desire for moral perfection.
When  perfectionists break the moral law, they tend to rationalize their behavior and reject that law.  After all, I didn’t do anything wrong.  I am perfect.  Thus, perfectionism breeds not only guilt but also, ironically and often at the same time, self-righteousness and license.
God’s Law, which will show them that they are even less perfect than they realize, can break through all of that.  Whereupon the Gospel of Christ will come as the best of news.
At any rate, Christians should not give up on reaching today’s secularists.  Their perfectionism and their tormenting failure to live up to their own standards suggests that they may eventually be more open to the Gospel than we realize.
Photo by State Farm via Flickr,  Creative Commons License
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