University graduation
Graduates today are entering an ever more competitive jobs market. iStock

In recent decades, there has been a significant increase in perfectionist tendencies among university students which could be damaging the mental health of young adults, according to researchers.

The authors say perfectionism can entail "an irrational desire to achieve along with being overly critical of oneself and others." The study, published in the journal Psychological Bulletin, is the first to investigate generational differences through the lens of perfectionism.

The researchers analysed data from 41,641 British, American and Canadian university students who had completed a perfectionism survey between 1989 and 2016.

They looked at three indicators of perfectionism: an irrational desire to be perfect, perceiving excessive expectation from others and placing unrealistic standards on others. The findings showed, that the indicators rose by 10%, 33% and 16% respectively between 1989 and 2016.

Thomas Curran, lead author of the study from the University of Bath, suggests these increases could be explained by a number of factors.

Data suggests that social media use can place pressure on young adults to perfect their minds, bodies and careers because they are constantly comparing themselves to others. Increased perfectionism can also be observed in the drive among young people to set lofty career goals.

Curran also notes how students nowadays are frequently comparing their grade point average with their peers. These examples, Curran suggests, represent a rise in meritocracy among millennials.

"Meritocracy places a strong need for young people to strive, perform and achieve in modern life," said Curran. "Young people are responding by reporting increasingly unrealistic educational and professional expectations for themselves. As a result, perfectionism is rising among millennials."

"These findings suggest that recent generations of college students have higher expectations of themselves and others than previous generations," he added. "Today's young people are competing with each other in order to meet societal pressures to succeed and they feel that perfectionism is necessary in order to feel safe, socially connected and of worth."

The authors say this increase in perfectionism may be affecting the psychological health of students, citing an uptick of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts over the last decade.