In a culture consumed by alcohol, younger generations are choosing to break up with booze.
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I woke up hungover on the morning of my wedding. And not the kind of hangover where I felt better after coffee and a meal or even a mid-morning nap. I was hungover hungover. My eyes were swollen, my brain felt fuzzy, my stomach sour. I wished I could rewind time or crawl into a void until I felt like a person again.
This was March 2019. And at the time, I brushed off how I was feeling because of the fun I had the previous night. Many margaritas were consumed because we were celebrating this huge thing I was about to do. But looking back, I wish I could have stood in front of my husband in that tiny Salt Lake City courthouse room fully present, feeling 100 percent. Instead, my hangover overshadowed a lot of it and is a defining aspect of how I remember the day.
I decided to stop drinking three years ago, just six months after my wedding day, for that very reason: Alcohol never made me feel my best. Even with the false confidence it brought me in times of social insecurity, I would routinely wake up regretting what I said or how I acted. I wouldn’t consider myself to have been a problem drinker, but I craved control. It turns out, sobriety provided that control for me—and I’m not alone. Many millennials and Gen Zers are cutting back on alcohol or cutting it completely, all for vastly differing reasons.
For me, sobriety made me question what role alcohol played in my life in the first place — was it additive or subtractive? Did I need to order a drink just because everyone at the table did? To meet new people? To enjoy a movie, concert or a friend’s wedding? Most of the time, ordering a cocktail felt habitual, like I used it to feel part of a community or as a way to tamp down anxiety.
“You don’t really typically have to ask yourself questions about things that are good for you,” said Holly Whitaker, author of the New York Times best-selling book Quit Like a Woman: The Radical Choice to Not Drink in a Culture Obsessed with Alcohol.
A culmination of individual questioning has given rise to a broader cultural conversation, led by young consumers, on why alcohol permeates our social lives, if it should continue to, and the benefits of giving it up.
“My favorite part about being sober is that I really enjoy and feel blessed to be able to experience things fully with all my own faculties in check,” Elly Belle, a 27-year-old Brooklyn-based journalist, said. “I like knowing that I am experiencing them as not some altered version of myself.”
Terms like “sober curious”, “Cali sober”, and “mindful drinking” populate the zeitgeist — so much so that Big Alcohol wants to cash in on our liquor-less future. Some studies found millennials drink less than other age groups, while another heavily-cited report concluded Gen Z drank 20 percent less than millennials. Mocktail bars, nonalcoholic wine and beverage stores are opening in cities across the globe, placing big bets on shifting attitudes toward booze. Trend forecasters have attributed growing sobriety to the greater wellness movement, yet some young people have simply said they’re tired of drinking so much or have even opted for cannabis and psychedelics instead.
However, research of alcohol consumption during the pandemic tells a different story in parallel to recent sobriety trends. “Alcohol is a classic example of a poor coping behavior, and there’s been a lot that people have had to cope with,” said David Jernigan, a professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health.
A survey in Journal of the American Medical Association found a 41 percent increase in heavy drinking among women compared to the year prior. Alcohol-use disorder deaths (characterized as alcoholism and binge drinking) surged in 2020, with young adults (25 to 44) demonstrating the largest increase. Plus we’re drinking alone a lot more, too — a telltale sign of problem drinking. But at least business was good: Liquor delivery company Drizly reported a 461 percent uptick in sales in the last week of March 2020.
“We’re starting to see two really emergent things,” Whitaker said. “An acceleration of addiction in the wake of the pandemic, but then we are also seeing people who are making different choices and the normalization of sobriety.”
These two trends existing in tandem is somewhat predictable: There’s a lot of reasons to drink. When we’re shown, through popular culture, that the best way to cope with existential dread is with a drink, it’s no wonder why consumption rates rise. But then again, experiencing collective trauma is also a sure-fire way to inspire change. And younger generations are proving to be up for the battle.
Predictably, it’s all about money
Normalizing sobriety in an alcohol-dependent society is difficult, especially when individuals are up against a trillion-dollar industry pumping out advertisements and making it seem like the only way to experience life is with a drink in your hand. Marketing budgets for alcohol brands are expected to rise to $7.7 billion by next year, and the industry is placing renewed importance on digital ads on social media where younger consumers tend to hang out.
“Whenever I get into that mindset that I’m somehow less fun because of being sober, I remind myself that it’s completely a marketing trick and a slight of pop culture to believe that having fun revolves around alcohol or bars or parties,” Belle said.
Thanks to a well-oiled machine targeting all demographics, alcohol is the standard, just as cigarettes once were. And abstaining from it in a social setting tends to set off alarm bells. If you’ve ever ordered water or seltzer at the bar, you may have been criticized by your peers for not being fun, or if you have a uterus, asked about the status of your womb. Drinking alcohol has not only become essential for celebrations and networking events, but everyday activities like gym class and grocery shopping. According to Jernigan, who has studied alcohol marketing for decades, liquor companies are eager to inject a buzz “into every part of our lives.”
“Marketing works to set norms, it is intentional cultural change,” he said. “People tend to live in a bubble of people like them, you look around you and it looks like everybody’s drinking, but everybody isn’t drinking. The drinkers do make more noise, and the industry certainly makes more noise, like tobacco, this industry loses its best customers every year because they die, so they have to replenish the market.”
Jernigan cited the “80/20” rule of commodities, meaning the top 20 percent of drinkers are typically responsible for up to 80 percent of alcohol consumption. According to a 2019 poll, just over half of U.S. adults reported to have any alcohol in the last month. “There are just a whole lot of people who drink too much occasionally, and they cause the bulk of the problems,” he said.
The Contradiction of ‘Drink Responsibly’
Drinking presents a variety of risks every time someone raises a glass. Short-term risks, as listed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, include injury, violence, and alcohol poisoning, while oft-ignored long-term risks include chronic health disorders like cancer, heart disease, liver disease, high blood pressure, stroke, and mental health illnesses.
For Josephine Hill, a 26-year-old marketing manager based in Washington, D.C., the effect alcohol had on her health was reason enough to get sober. After having a rum cocktail at a networking event, Hill had to excuse herself to the bathroom. She was experiencing a wave of dizziness, hot flashes, and sharp pains in her stomach. She decided to quickly throw up and head home. A few months later, she was diagnosed with a H.Pylori stomach infection, which thrives on the sugary carbs found in liquor.
“I needed to find different coping mechanisms for when I was stressed,” Hill said. “Alcohol would just make my body mad at itself. The social pressure of alcohol isn’t worth it to me because of the aftercare.”
Historically, alcohol has been seen as separate from other drugs and addictive substances. There are people who can tolerate its effects, and others who can’t.
“If a drug is normalized and you’re told you should be able to use it without bad effects, but that’s not your experience with it, it’s extremely problematic,” Whitaker said.
The phrase “drink responsibly” was coined as a public health movement in the 1970s, but has since been adopted and disseminated by Big Alcohol as a means to skirt accountability for the product it supplies and the consequences of people using it. It’s an easy cop out to blame consumers for using the product wrong when the industry wants to avoid addressing the fact that 140,000 people die from excessive alcohol use every year.
“There’s no definition for responsible drinking,” Jernigan said. “The industry uses the term, but they will never define it.”
The Power of Generational Sobriety
The alcohol industry is dependent on heavy drinkers. Studies have estimated that if people actually “drink responsibly”, the industry would lose out on a ton of money. A study in England estimated alcohol sales would decrease 38 percent if people consumed according to government guidelines. And unlike other consumer products, liquor companies are not beholden to educate consumers on ingredients, calories, or serving sizes. Even the warning labels we see on alcohol are out of date, vague and don’t include up-to-date research on alcohol’s health effects.
Adding clear, concise warning labels at the point of purchase and consumption is where researchers believe we can best combat alcohol misuse and misinformation. But Whitaker believes it’ll take a lot more of a cultural overhaul to reshape our society’s relationship to alcohol.
“We’re in late-stage capitalism, we’re at maximal consumption,” she said. “Late-stage capitalism means it’s extractive, it takes something from you and you have to go out and figure out how to fill that hole up, you see that through alcohol consumption and materialism.”
One source of optimism for Whitaker, though, is that the conversations millennials and Gen Zers are having about alcohol’s place in society and in their social circles are already swaying the market. Younger generations have turned a century of Big Alcohol marketing on its head: Sometimes drinking “responsibly” means not drinking at all. And there’s no shame in that.
“I think when you really start to uncover it, it’s not doom and gloom, it’s like a freedom of understanding how you’re being played and manipulated,” Whitaker said. “At the end of the day the thing that our future rests upon is our ability to be with ourselves and our individual healing.”
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