On January 20, 2017, Cassie Schoon rolled into work with a hangover. It was the morning of Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration, and Schoon, who doesn’t count herself among the president’s fans, had gone out for drinks with friends the night before to take her mind off it. The evening’s distraction left her in pretty rough shape the next day. “I was in this meeting feeling absolutely miserable, and I was like, You know, this is not what grown-ups do,” she says.
Since then, Schoon, who is 37 and lives in Denver, has cut way back on alcohol. “[Drinking] has to be more of an occasion for me now, like someone’s birthday or a girls’ night,” she says. “So it’s once every couple of weeks instead of a weekly occurrence.” Drinking less wasn’t always simple for her: Denver is a young town with a vibrant brewery and bar scene, and Schoon’s social circle had long centered itself on meeting up for drinks. But avoiding booze has been worth it. “I started to realize there’s no reason I can’t see these people and go to museums or go out for waffles or something,” Schoon says.
In the past few weeks, I’ve heard from more than 100 Americans in their 20s and 30s who have begun to make similar changes in their drinking habits or who are contemplating ways to drink less. They have good company: Public-health efforts have helped drive down adolescent drinking rates, and American beverage manufacturers are beginning to hedge their bets on alcohol’s future. Media too have noticed that change is afoot. Recent months have seen a flurry of trend stories about Millennials—currently about 22 to 38 years old—getting sober.
But sobriety, a term that generally refers to the total abstention practiced by people in recovery from substance-abuse problems, doesn’t quite tell the story. What some have been quick to characterize as an interest in being sober might actually be more like a search for moderation in a culture that has long treated alcohol as a dichotomy: Either you drink whenever the opportunity presents itself, or you don’t drink at all. Many Millennials—and especially the urban, college-educated consumers prized by marketers—might just be tired of drinking so much.
There isn’t any great statistical evidence yet that young adults have altered their drinking habits on a grand scale. Changes in habit often lag behind changes in attitude, and national survey data on drinking habits reflect only small declines in heavy alcohol use. (For men, that’s drinking five alcoholic beverages in a short period of time five or more times in a month; for women, it’s four drinks under the same conditions.) From 2015 through 2017, the most recent year for which data are available, the rate of Millennials who reported that they had consumed any amount of alcohol in the preceding month remained pretty steady, at more than 60 percent.
But there are limitations to these data that would make it difficult to capture the types of changes that people described to me. Someone who has cut back from regularly having two or three glasses of wine with dinner to having only a glass once a week, for example, would still fall into the same statistical category, eliding shifts that might make a huge difference on a personal level. And a desire to drink less doesn’t mean that people no longer enjoy drinking. Instead, it might be that alcohol-centric socializing has crept into more parts of people’s lives and stuck around longer than previous generations had to contend with it.
For young Americans, drinking is very social. “I drank pretty regularly in my 20s, especially in social situations,” says Leanne Vanderbyl, who lives in San Francisco. “It wasn’t until I hit my 30s that I realized that alcohol was no longer my friend.” A few decades ago, marriage and children might have moved urban, college-educated young adults away from social drinking naturally, but fewer Millennials are taking part in traditional family building, and the ones doing it are waiting longer than their parents did. Now the structure of social life isn’t that different for many people in their mid-30s than it was in their early 20s, which provides plenty of time for drinking on dates and with friends for them to start to get a little tired of it.
For a generation that’s also behind its forebears in terms of wealth accumulation, whether or not it’s a good idea to buy a bunch of beers or several $13 cocktails three nights a week can come down to practical concerns. Alex Belfiori, a 30-year-old IT professional in Pittsburgh, decided recently to stop keeping beer in the house. “I’ve already calculated how much I’m saving by not drinking, and I’m thinking about where I can put that money now,” he says. Nina Serven, a 24-year-old brand manager living in Brooklyn, is similarly over it. “Drinking just feels boring and needlessly expensive,” she says, even though she feels social pressure to drink. “I just started a medication that shouldn’t be mixed with alcohol, and I’m relieved that I have an easy out.”
Britta Starke, an addictions therapist and the program director of the Alcohol and Substance Abuse Center at the University of North Carolina, sees a similar malaise in those seeking guidance from her practice. “There does come a time when there has to be some introspection,” she says. “Folks in the Millennial generation have maybe a better sense of balance. Some do yoga or meditation or are physically active, so they don’t need to find stimulation and stress reduction in substances.” That mirrors the generation’s general interest in maintaining its health, and for those questioning their habits, realizing that a healthier relationship with alcohol doesn’t require most people to give up drinking might ease their social concerns.
Still, Starke has noticed some worrying attitudinal trends toward alcohol among her younger patients. Millennials who haven’t developed their generation’s signature coping skills often use alcohol heavily. Starke sees an alarming number of people under 35 with advanced liver disease or alcohol hepatitis. As attitudes may be moderating for many young adults, plenty of others are struggling: Nearly 90,000 people still die from alcohol-related causes in America every year, and that number hasn’t started to meaningfully improve.
Moreover, drinking doesn’t exist in a substance-use vacuum; all the other things Millennials are well known for ingesting play a role in its shifting popularity. “It still seems like this is a generation of self-medicating, but they’re using things differently,” says Starke, and the normalization and ever more common legalization of cannabis have a big part in that.
Among the people I spoke with in detail, several mentioned replacing their evening wine with an evening bowl. “I smoke weed to unwind—thank you, California,” says Vanderbyl. For her, cannabis lacks the lingering effects that drove her away from alcohol: “I can wake up in the morning feeling ready for the day.” She’s not alone in making that switch. A 2017 study found that in counties with legalized medicinal cannabis, alcohol sales dropped more than 12 percent when compared with similar counties without weed. Recreational legalization has the potential to bolster that effect by making cannabis products even more broadly accessible.
Millennials have also shown what Starke says is a worrisome interest in other drugs, the abuse of which may be diverting some of their attention from alcohol. She sees many patients looking for help with opioids, as well as benzodiazepines such as Xanax. Just because young people want to drink less often doesn’t necessarily mean they’re better off: Suicide rates are up among young adults, and prescription-drug abuse is a problem the country is only beginning to address.
The beverage industry does seem to see the writing on the wall. Over the past decade, a tide of artisanal alcohol businesses met the swelling Millennial market for booze-based socializing, including innumerable microbreweries and distilleries, as well as high-end cocktail bars and wineshops targeting a younger clientele. Now 2018 Nielsen data show that sales growth across alcohol categories is slowing. Bon Appétit estimates that the market for low- or no-alcohol beverages could grow by almost a third in just the next three years.
The spaces in which alcohol is consumed will also have to change to meet shifting consumer demands. It’s become notably easier in recent years to find alcohol-free cocktails in urban bars across America. In New York City, a few young entrepreneurs are opening new kinds of spaces to serve the tastes of their peers. Listen Bar, a clubby pop-up that gives patrons a chance to party without alcohol, is crowdfunding to lease its first permanent location. In Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood, Getaway, a bar so dedicated to being booze-free that it won’t even use bitters that contain alcohol, is opening in a few weeks.
Getaway’s owners, Sam Thonis and Regina Dellea, left careers in media to open the bar, an idea inspired by Thonis’s brother’s recovery from alcoholism. So far, the reception the pair has received bears out the broader generational shift they’re anticipating. “It feels to me like the older people are, the more they see [our bar] as a thing for sober people. They see it as black or white—you drink or you don’t drink,” says Thonis. “With younger people, there’s a lot more receptiveness to just not drinking sometimes.”
Instead of being the tipping point of any grand trend in alcohol consumption themselves, Millennials might simply be the canaries in the coal mine. Statistically, it’s Generation Z, the age group currently in high school and college, that might force a sea change in America’s relationship with alcohol. Gen Z is drinking at lower rates than adolescents have in generations, and so much about a person’s lifetime relationship with substance abuse and consumption is set by use in early life.
For now, many young adults seem relieved that the pressure they’ve internalized to drink is easing and more options are opening up. Drinking’s spot in people’s lives doesn’t have to be as all-or-nothing as American culture has long regarded it. “For many people, when they’re honest with their friends [about wanting to skip out on drinks], their friends are like, ‘Oh my God, I was thinking about that too,’” says UNC’s Starke. “I don’t know too many people who have gotten a negative response.”
Dellea has also noticed a mix of excitement and relief among her bar’s prospective patrons. “An Instagram account put up a picture of the bar,” she says. “A lot of the comments were just people tagging their friends.”