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.”