Millennials are at higher risk for mental health issues. This may be why.

The results are higher levels of anxiety, depression, and even thoughts of suicide.

Millennials are experiencing higher levels of anxiety, depression, and thoughts of suicide than generations past. Many reasons have been offered but none definitive, until now. A new study finds that this generation carries much higher levels of perfectionism, and that these elevated expectations may be to blame. British researchers came to these conclusions, which were published in the journal Psychological Bulletin.


Since the 1980s, governments and their adjacent societies in the US, UK, and Canada, have focused on individual improvement, both in the economic and social sphere. Since then, people in these countries have been working on themselves, forever striving for self-improvement, particularly in the forms of higher educational and career attainment, and better social standing. But what cost comes with putting all that emphasis on individual achievement?

According to Thomas Curran, from the University of Bath and Andrew Hill, of York St. John University, the results are being seen with this latest generation, the Millennials (ages 18-35). This generation feels overburdened with a perfectionist streak unknown to their parents or grandparents.

In their paper, researchers define perfectionism as "a combination of excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations." It isn't simple perfectionism doing Millennials in but “multidimensional perfectionism," meaning these young adults feel pressure to measure up to an ever-growing number of criteria. Striving to reach impossible standards increases the risk of anxiety, depression, an eating disorder, and even suicidal ideation.

Millennials are more perfectionist than the past two generations, and this may be leading to higher incidents of mental health issues. Credit: Getty Images.

To conduct the study, researchers recruited 41,641 college students in the US, the UK, and Canada. Each completed a metric known as the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale. This tests for three different types.

The first is self-oriented perfectionism, which is an irrational need for one's self to reach an overly ambitious goal. The second is socially prescribed perfectionism or pressure from others to achieve the loftiest of heights, and the third is other-oriented perfectionism, or having unrealistic expectations of others. This study also looked at how perfectionism has changed over decades, beginning in the 1980s.

The data revealed that Millennials experience all three types of perfectionism, and these scores were higher than with college students in the past. Comparing this with scores from past cohorts, Hill and Curran found that self-oriented perfectionism increased 10% from 1989 to 2016. External pressure perfectionism increased 33% in that same time period. And external perfectionism shot up 16%.

So why the increase? Greater competitiveness, a continued focus on individualism, and overbearing and anxious parents may be why. Higher educational demands and the need to find a job that earns a significant salary, also lead to an inflated need for perfection.

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

Social media may also be playing a role. Credit: Getty Images.

In 1976, 50% of high school seniors said they planned to graduate from college. By 2008, 80% planned on doing so. "These findings suggest that recent generations of college students have higher expectations of themselves and others than previous generations," Curran said. "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."

Social media too may be exerting its influence. Seeing peers portrayed with perfect bodies, achieving noteworthy goals, or modeling RomCom-worthy relationships, increases feelings of insecurity, and so ramps up competitiveness and the desire to do well. The drawbacks are a propensity toward mental health issues, body issues and even, social isolation. One drawback to the study, it offers few ways to take the pressure off Millennials, besides professors, supervisors, and parents making light of academic and career-oriented tasks, when they instead might turn the screws to increase performance.

Curran and Hill conclude that, “American, Canadian, and British cultures have become more individualistic, materialistic, and socially antagonistic over this period, with young people now facing more competitive environments, more unrealistic expectations, and more anxious and controlling parents than generations before."

Truth is, there is no such thing as perfection. And we learn far more from our failures than we ever do our successes. So instead of trying to be perfect, it might be best to perfect how to learn from the times we come up short.

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.