Given that many college students learn nothing during their years in higher education, one might not immediately think of them as a bunch of perfectionists. But, according to some new research, they are. Coverage of the study in USA Today says:
(The study’s) lead author Thomas Curran of the University of Bath and co-author Andrew Hill of York St. John University describe perfectionism as “an irrational desire to achieve along with being overly critical of oneself and others.” In their study, published Dec. 28 in the journal Psychological Bulletin, college students from 1989 to 2016 took a test to measure self-oriented, other-oriented and socially prescribed perfectionism.
Modern-day students, the study found, display more characteristics of three types of perfectionism
I believe this.
Our culture has created a generation of young people who are characterized primarily by their outsized sense of what is expected of them and, paradoxically, a desire to avoid taking the kind of chances that lead to real achievement.
Talking about this story in today’s episode of his daily podcast, The Briefing, Albert Mohler picks up on the section of the USA Today story where the author suggests that social media is behind this phenomenon. Mohler says “no one goes on social media to post ‘I’m not doing anything special at the moment’” everyone appears to be doing something very special . The idea Mohler seems to be getting at is that young people look at social media and see the highlight reels of others lives and respond by feeling they must be perfect in order to live up to the idealized images presented there.
There is undoubtedly some measure of truth to that, however deeper factors are also at play. Social media is a vehicle, a conduit through which cultural values are imparted and cultural contexts affirmed. To really understand the predicament of contemporary young people, we have to examine both those values and the context in which young people are trying to live them out.
Young people today have come of age in an era of brutal meritocracy. As the spiritual center of our society has ceased to hold, people have turned to emphasizing external achievements as a source of meaning. The not-so-subtle message is that the best life is the one whose end product is the overstuffed trophy case, resume or bank account.
At the same time, young people are told they have a moral obligation to seek as many affirmations of their personal value as possible through competition and activity. Winning a sports tournament no longer means simply that you are good at sports, but that you are a good person deserving of love and attention. The burden then is placed on every individual to prove his worth through winning. To refuse to play is to be deemed an immoral loser before the game has even begun.
We see this mindset everywhere. This is the mindset of the metric obsessed technician. It is the mindset of those who would reduce education to the standardized test. It is the mindset of the corporate culture of continuous improvement that has infected every area of our working lives.
When you combine this sort of ruthless reductionism with the “nobody’s-feelings-get-hurt-and-everybody-gets-a-trophy” attitude equally pervasive today, young people can’t help but be confused. Many have become paralyzed, unable to strike out on their own, to pursue personal goals without the permission of authorities. Instead, they become people racked by worries over being good enough, who simultaneously believe they need not expend much effort to be considered extraordinary.
The loss of the family, especially of the role of the father, is another factor in the development of these attitudes. Because the world has always been an arena of competition for resources, the family should be a refuge. In the family, we are, ideally, loved and rewarded merely for existing. Membership in the family should be achievement enough to grant us attachment, support and love.
The role of the father, when fathers existed, was, partly, to orient children, particularly boys, toward the outside world. Dad’s job was to pass on the necessary knowledge for competent living within a framework of familial love. At the same time, Dad set reasonable standards for behavior and rewarded appropriately. A good father was a man who had expectations, but expectations that were clear and could, with some effort, be satisfied. At the same time, a good father communicated that his love was not conditioned upon the perfect meeting of those expectations.
As the role of both faith and fathers faded in young people’s lives, people other than Dad, education bureaucrats, corporate executives, and politicians, began setting the bar, and doing so in a manner that primarily served their interests. The result is young people on whom the expectations of school, corporate life and peers hang heavily. These young people, then, find themselves prey to the twin vices of anxiety and sloth, a situation that far too often gives rise to a kind of hopelessness in them with which we are all growing familiar. The irony here is that in its pursuit of ever better results, our secular, atomized culture has produced a generation increasingly frightened to produce anything.
None of this can be changed without a return to the healthier patterns of the past: a return to faith, a return to family, a return to a sense of sanity in what constitutes good enough. As with so many things in the modern world, the path forward here is, simultaneously, the path back.