Millennials and the Quest for Perfection

Hipster friends on road trip on a summers day

Millennials are stressed out. This is hardly breaking news, but the American Psychological Association’s annual Stress in America survey, released Feb. 4, makes it official. According to their results, Americans born in the early 1980s through the early 2000s – or Millennials – are more stressed than any other generation. We are more apt to worry over our finances in particular, which in turn leads us to irritability, anxiety, and lack of motivation, followed by unhealthy coping strategies like drinking, aimlessly surfing the internet, and smoking. It’s easy to place blame on factors such as the recession, climbing cost of higher education, poor job markets, and bad career advice from parents and/or advisers, but ultimately, that’s just finger pointing. So what is the real cause of our anxiety? 

Every generation experiences heightened stress as it comes of age, which is just another way of saying “growing up is hard.” As children, we dream. As teenagers, we compare. As young adults, we tend to do both. Perhaps the greatest difference between the millennials and previous generations is the tremendous diversity and breadth available to us in which to dream… and to compare.

This generation has been widely acknowledged as the most educated in human history, thanks in part to easier access and sharing of information. Because of this, the whole world is open to us – it almost seems as though there are no realistic limits on what we can do or become. With enough likes and shares, we can be famous. With the right networking, we can land any job, or even start our own company. With so many possibilities, who would settle for anything less than perfection? Armed with this mindset, millennials have shown employers that we are a proven flight risk unless they provide us with a trendy, stimulating, fulfilling, and flexible work environment. Many employers are acquiescing to these demands in order to capture new talent, but hiring and retaining are two different things.

If there’s one thing social media has taught us, it’s how to look really, REALLY good by capturing and sharing just the right moments of our lives. Only the witty, polished, and picturesque make it onto our feeds. With so much ‘perfection’ before us, we can begin to compare ourselves to millions of other people who are doing the exact same thing we are – picking and choosing what to share. Companies are no exception to this charade, and so many young professionals are constantly being tempted away from their current roles by a competitor’s snazzy Instagram feed. We’re a flight risk, remember?

With all the competing ideals of what a successful and fulfilling life looks like, it’s no wonder this quest for perfection is stressing out the young adult population. We have been set loose in a world of high expectations and heavy competition – much of it manufactured by increasingly efficient ways of showing only the rewards and none of the hard work. Consequently, we settle into lives of anxiety and lack of motivation, followed by the unhealthy coping strategies shared in the APA’s report.

So what is really going on here? Should we rein in our dreams and stop believing that anything is possible? Is the Information Age responsible for our chronic discontentment and wanderlust? Would simply unplugging and doing some yoga alleviate our anxiety?

These questions are all valid, but miss the point. Millennials experiencing the anxiety of strained finances, job hunting, career advancement, professional fulfillment, or any other worry need to ask themselves a serious question – “What am I chasing?”

Take the time to dig into this question, because the answer will reveal your true priorities. Is your objective wealth? Independence? Professional challenge or advancement? The ability to devote yourself to a healthy marriage and raising a family? To live a life of service to those around you? If you discover that your goals are largely selfish, don’t be too surprised when you find yourself consistently unfulfilled.

Wealth is not bad. Neither is independence, or the pursuit of challenging, stimulating work. Wholesome satisfaction can be found in both security and in labor. The problem that faces the millennial generation and brings us so much anxiety is actually the same problem faced by every generation – our human nature is broken. Our appetites rule us if not restrained by God’s grace and our willingness to place ourselves under His hand. We are just the next generation facing the newest mutation of old temptations. 

The quest for perfection is not in our hearts by accident, however, even in our professional lives. We are designed to desire goodness, beauty, and truth, all of which come directly from Christ. So go ahead. Chase perfection. It really is OK. But have the courage to unmask the demons first.

If your dreams are selfish, bring Christ back in to your career and dedicate your labor and its fruits to Him. Dive headfirst into the mystery of the Gospel – “He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Mt 10:39) If you suffer from discontentment through comparison, cut off those means and replace them with communities that will help remind you that you are loved, even to the point of death on a Cross.