Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
I recently read an article in The Economist describing an American university professor’s experience with one of his postgraduate students. This student, though brilliant, consistently failed to hand in his essays before the deadline. Yet it was not a poor work ethic holding him back but rather the student’s obsessive perfectionism, which left him unable to complete an essay to his satisfaction. Eventually, after failing his dissertation by deleting 20,000 words the night before the due date, the student dropped out of his studies and began receiving counselling for his anxiety.
The concept of perfectionism is a relatively recent one. A quick frequency search shows a major spike in its appearance in English-language books after 1980. The trajectory of the word closely mirrors that of another term ubiquitous within the Western world: meritocracy.
The principle of meritocracy – the idea that everyone, regardless of background, should be given an equal opportunity to succeed - is hard to disagree with. There is a reason that governments from both sides of the political divide have embraced it. First there was Tony Blair who embraced meritocracy as a driver of social equality. More recently in 2017, Theresa May stated her dream of making Britain ‘a true meritocracy.’ Surveys of the British public suggest that the idea is strongly embedded in national attitudes. One 2021 report by the think tank UK in a Changing Europe found that 76% of people surveyed agreed with the statement that hard work is essential or very important in determining success.
In a world where the doctrine of meritocracy has achieved hegemonic power, it’s little wonder that so many young people cite experiencing feelings of anxiety and depression as a result of the ‘pressure to succeed.’ Perfectionism and meritocracy are two sides of the same coin. Meritocracy covets talent, thrift and ambition, while ordinariness becomes the fate of the untalented or the lazy – in both cases, personal deficiency is assumed to be responsible.
James Marriot recently discussed in The Times his encounter with the ‘side-hustle culture’ currently infiltrating universities across Britain. A student friend of mine provided examples attesting to Marriot’s observation from within her own social group of mostly 20-year-olds which, she insists, is ‘not abnormal.’ One of her acquaintances founded a sustainability-themed social media platform. Another runs an online clothing brand. Many moonlight as student marketing ambassadors for companies including Deliveroo and Merchant Gourmet, running small-scale advertising campaigns on Instagram and TikTok.
Ambitious, career-minded young people have always populated university campuses.
What has changed is that what was once the preserve of the especially driven is now perceived as a necessary pre-requisite of adult professional success. Or, as my friend put it: ‘Everyone wants to be successful. No one wants to feel like an underachiever while everyone else is constantly grinding.’
One thing is for sure: the weight that meritocracy attaches to individualism and self-pursuit has not contributed towards increased feelings of fulfilment. At its core, constantly striving for perfection is ultimately a futile pursuit. In addition, for all their extra-curricular exertions, today’s students face considerably less optimistic economic prospects than their parents. That so many young people report feelings of inadequacy and anxiety about their professional prospects suggest that the tension between the promises of meritocracy and less sunny economic realities have already begun to manifest themselves. Unfortunately, as students graduate into a labour market beleaguered by a series of ‘posts’ – post-financial crash, post-Brexit, post-pandemic – their disaffection is unlikely to disappear.