Why is it that millennials are such perfectionists?

“A study conducted in 2018 proposed three reasons. One of them is the fact that millennials – which is to say, people born between 1980 and 2000 – are finding themselves confronted with the consequences of globalisation. Borders have disappeared from our world. For instance, when my son applied for a PhD position at Utrecht University, he was up against graduates from China. Since everyone wishes to get the best person for the job, employers are becoming more demanding, rather than less demanding. If you wish to achieve something, you must now compete with the rest of the world. That’s a big statement, but it basically means that high standards have become the norm.

“Another contributing factor is the fact that we live in a neo-liberal meritocracy in which people are judged on their achievements and can no longer count on things such as permanent contracts. Insecurities may give rise to perfectionism.”

How to recognise a perfectionist?

“Perfectionists are likely to procrastinate. They impose high standards on themselves and are unable to accept their own mistakes. It mainly gets problematic when these high standards are imposed by external parties and they are unable to meet those standards. In such cases, perfectionism will result in frustration and exhaustion. You will constantly hear an inner voice asking, ‘how do my parents/lecturers/friends feel about me?’”

Perfectionism is often linked to burn-outs, depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders. Is that correct?

“We often see, for instance, that people with eating disorders tend to be perfectionists and that perfectionism often goes hand in hand with depression, but this is not to say that perfectionism actually causes these things. Scientists have noted that there is a correlation, but if you can demonstrate exactly what that correlation is, you can go to Norway and collect your Nobel Prize right now. Although I feel we shouldn’t wait for that to happen. We should take action now to combat the increasing perfectionism in young adults.”

The growing pressure to perform has led to students becoming ever greater perfectionists. Are universities and universities of applied sciences doing enough to combat this trend?

“A great deal of attention is being paid at universities and universities of applied sciences to the pressure to perform. We’ve seen education institutions take up the subject. They realise that they are not merely factories churning out graduates, but that they must also focus on their students’ wellbeing. We’ve seen all sorts of initiatives being undertaken to raise students’ awareness of the importance of proper emotional and physical health.”

But are they making a difference?

“It’s too early to tell. Perfectionism in young adults is not going up in a straight line. I’m fairly confident that millennials will find solutions to today’s issues. I think today’s young adults are a lot more empowered and resilient than my own generation was at that age.”

What can people do to curb their own perfectionism?

“I am hesitant to give tips, because they don’t work until you’re actually looking for them. But what’s crucial is learning to look at yourself from across a distance. You can do so, for instance, by writing down your thoughts and emotions. Ask yourself why what you’re doing is making you feel uncomfortable. A good coach can walk you through that process.

“In addition, it’s important that you divide your objectives into clearly defined and precise steps that are actually feasible. Make sure you don’t pursue your objectives in too forced a manner, because the pursuit should not turn into a sword of Damocles. Aspiring to high standards is fine, as long as you’re relaxed about the whole thing and accept that things may not always go to plan. And my key recommendation is to enjoy life, because enjoyment is the main factor protecting people from the pitfalls of perfectionism.”

Perfectionisme by Jaap van der Stel, Uitgeverij SWP, 128 pages, €23.

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