Generation P (for Perfection)

A notable piece of research was published at the end of 2017, and it takes the millennial ‘snowflake’ rhetoric to pieces.

Researchers Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill – looking at sets of students across 30 years in the US, Canada, and here in the UK (circa 40,000 students in total) – found a notable increase in ‘perfectionist’ traits: what a student expects of themselves, of others, and what they believe is expected of them by society. For a generation commonly portrayed in some parts of the media as avocado-eating, selfie-crazed technophiles who take everything to heart, this study has set the millennial cat amongst the proverbial pigeons.

Millennials are the generation that some media loves to hate, but their Achilles heel may in fact be that their expectations – both of themselves and of others – are significantly inflated compared to earlier generations. Those of us who are working with students and recent graduates will need to consider this as we shape the support on offer to this generation.

How we embark on teaching, coaching, supporting and working with our next generation of colleagues could have a tremendous impact on the chances of each individual realising their potential. With the recent announcement of a governmental review of post-18 education that could see yet another policy yo-yo on degree fees, it seems prudent to consider this new reality right now.

Three types of perfectionism

Firstly, let’s separate self- from socially-prescribed perfectionism, and look at the three types discussed in the study:

  • Self-oriented perfectionism, whereby individuals have high to unrealistic expectations of themselves
  • Socially-prescribed perfectionism, whereby individuals perceive their social context to be excessively demanding, and so they must display perfection to secure approval
  • Other-oriented perfectionism, whereby high to unrealistic standards are imposed on others

This second type of perfection should have us all listening up, because it is the most significantly increased across the generations of students, and also the most frightening. Linked to longer term ‘depressive symptoms’ such as stress and anxiety and – most concerningly – suicide ideation, it could be argued that this type of perfectionism is  linked to our neoliberal education system and, unsurprisingly, to social media. Other culprits may include overbearing parenting styles and the rise of ‘competitive individualism’ – the growing preference for individual activities around personal enhancement over community activities such as team sports.

With schools think meritocracy versus social mobility, whereby students who have a lower attainment are equating their (comparative) lack of success amongst their peer group with a (lesser) innate personal value. With social media, think FOMO (fear of missing out) and filters, and a constant exposure to the seemingly perfect lives of others. With universities, think of students who feel like they did not gain a place at an elite university because they didn’t have ballet lessons bumping up their UCAS points – a heart breaking revelation linked to the social mobility agenda.

A cross-generational issue

Even if you disagree, it doesn’t stop there. Forget millennials for a second and remember that schools are still potentially nurturing these perfectionist pressures in children. And social media? Well that’s just for the millen… oh, wait. Social media already has its tendrils deeply embedded in our multi-generational society. Everyone from our newborns to our nans has a Facebook account, so the dark side of ‘perfectionist traits’ are unlikely to be confined to a single generation. With universities simultaneously being huge employers of multiple generations and the 3+ year home for many millennials, they are hotbeds of this societal challenge.

The immediate and obvious difficulty is the stigma around mental health, so let’s just make sure we’re all on the same page. The millenial generation is expecting more of themselves, they are not less resilient. They are more interested in work/life balance than high salaries. They are often deeply cynical of our political structures and financial institutions. And why shouldn’t they be? Most were raised through a financial crash, yet we can’t move for expenses scandals or pay gaps. Newspapers cite median starting salaries of £30,000, but the majority of graduates start on £10,000 less than this. They’re bound to be frustrated if they vote Lib Dem and get Con-Dem. If they vote Grime4Corbyn and get Austerity4May. If they vote ‘stay’ and are forced to ‘leave’.

Aspiration meets expectation

Clearly there needs to be a delineation between the role of the NHS and the role of a HEI when considering serious mental health issues, but with funding challenges on both sides the line has blurred. However, it’s hugely important that our sector takes responsibility not just for raising aspirations, but also for managing expectations and cultivating confidence.

Students often face failure for the first time when applying for placement or graduate jobs, and there is a need for more support around mindset to ensure that students have the tools to pick themselves up again and not attribute their first major failure to their innate self-worth. We are already inflicting an expectation gap with the employers photographed for glossy admissions brochures and the unrealistic salaries frequently pitched by the media, so sharing the real stats in these areas is crucial.

By the same token, employers of students and graduates need to consider the impact of differing generational attitudes in the workplace and how their learning and development provision can support these individuals and of course there are a breadth of policy challenges to consider, as discussed in WonkHE’s podcast for University Mental Health Day.

Naturally there is no silver bullet, but we can keep working to raise awareness around the evolving realities of graduate employment and destinations. We need to stop chasing the Times Top 100 tail, which is merely reinforcing the myths that these individuals will need to have debunked when they join the workplace, feeling like a failure because they’re not working for a big brand.

Interestingly, graduates who thrive in the workplace can typically demonstrate or articulate three key things. The first is self-awareness – they can identify their approach to work and when they are at their most effective. The second is a variety of skills and experiences and how they were acquired, and the third is a support network or key individual that kept them on track.

So, ensuring we are arming young people with a coherent picture of the world of work, and the confidence to navigate it through coaching and mentoring, might mean their first hurdle doesn’t put them off the rest of the race.

7 responses to “Generation P (for Perfection)

  1. This is almost an academic paper with a few more references ? This is what jane and I were talking about over dinner last night managing expectations of all stakeholders, that we need to take a multilevel approach In the future world of work not just consider the graduate or the organisation but also outside agents EG careers services, universities, networks, etc. Well done Rebecca fantastic insightful piece ! Looking forward to meeting you soon! Mel

  2. Fascinatingly insightful. Very useful read, particularly as I’m working in HE and raising my own Millennial.

  3. That is a really great article Kylie, and so useful when working with and trying to support this generation.

  4. I’d love to turn this into an academic paper! I’m studying for an MSc at the moment so it’d be very fitting! Hope to meet you soon, Mel. Best, Kylie

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