People just loooove to report on what millennials are doing—or more accurately, what we’re not doing. We’re not going to Applebee’s, we’re not having sex, and now, apparently, we’re not drinking. Huh. That’s news to me and the 16 mimosas I had at brunch just two days ago. The reason we’re talking about this (again, even though we just did this song and dance a few months ago) is because CNN recently published an article on “sober curious” millennials entitled, “People are sick of drinking. Investors are betting on the ‘sober curious’.”
For those of you who are wondering, “sober curious” basically means people who are thinking about drinking less or going sober. So, like, all of us on a Sunday morning after too many tequila shots?
In all seriousness, there is data to suggest that young people are drinking less. A UK study conducted in 2018 found that young British people (16-24) were drinking “less alcohol” than a decade ago. In addition, more Brits in that age group were refraining from drinking altogether. But first of all, millennials are now ages 23 to 38! So this isn’t even really applicable to millennials. And what about young people in the US? According to Breakthru Beverage Group, most millennials consumed roughly the same amount of alcohol in 2018 as they did in 2017. However, a 2016 study surveying adolescents and young adults found that alcohol use “dropped steeply” since the 1990s. So, maybe millennials are drinking less, at least compared to generations’ past, but maybe we’re not? It’s hard to tell since nobody seems to have surveyed this directly, and it’s equally hard to pinpoint a reason this might be occurring.
Despite all this confusing data, one thing we can agree on is that millennials are drinking more at home, versus going out. Finally, a cause I can get behind. Drinking at bars is expensive! And so is makeup. Two things I don’t have to bother with if I buy a $12 bottle of sauvignon blanc from my local wine and liquor store and park my ass on my couch on Friday night.
So how real of a trend is being “sober curious”? It depends who you ask. If you’re talking to CNN or even The Atlantic, which ran a similar, mostly anecdotal piece called “Millennials Are Sick of Drinking” in April, then yes, this is a big trend. Or, at least, it’s a big enough trend to report on.
On the one hand, it’s not crazy to assume that American millennials might be drinking less. Health and wellness continue to be trends people care about (as evidenced by the “bullsh*t” wellness industry slammed by Jessica Knoll in the New York Times earlier this week), and also people are paying more attention to their mental health (as evidenced by, among other things, Instagram taking steps to make the platform a healthier place). As CNN points out, companies like WeWork, that used to tout unlimited alcohol as a workplace benefit (having worked as a WeWork, I can confirm that there were kegs that could be tapped at anytime on every single floor and regular happy hours with free booze), are now “exploring curbing beer consumption”, at least at some of the New York City locations. CNN reports they may be “limiting members to four 12-ounce glasses of beer per day,” thought it’s unclear exactly how they’d do that, considering nobody was stationed to man the kegs in the first place. There are also an influx of businesses that are aimed at supplying an alternative lifestyle to drinking—bars that only sell non-alcoholic mocktails, canned water that’s branded to look like an energy drink, for example.
But just because these things are emerging does not necessarily a huge trend make. And, as Slate pointed out about basically the same article in The Atlantic, these stories rely mostly on anecdotal evidence, and furthermore, The Atlantic writer admits, “there isn’t any great statistical evidence yet that young adults have altered their drinking habits on a grand scale.” For their article, The Atlantic spoke to over 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.”
But that right there is the flaw in this methodology: confirmation bias. You’re already speaking to people who have already made the choice to curb their drinking habits (or merely think about it). If you talked to me and my friends, we would say that sure, we think about drinking less every time we get a hangover, but we don’t actually have any intention of following through. That doesn’t mean you can conclude that millennials as a whole can’t give up alcohol. See the problem? Just because there are people out there doing a thing doesn’t mean you can apply it to a whole generation.
So I thought I’d conduct a similar experiment, just to prove a point. What if I looked at how millennials are talking about drinking, and do that in the most millennial language there is: in memes?
Take for example, this meme we posted on our Instagram this past weekend. It got 120,000 likes. That is pretty good.
View this post on Instagram
Now, I can’t pull audience demographics from a specific post, but I can tell you that 53% of the Betches followers on Instagram are aged 25-34, and 24% are ages 18-24. So, a majority are millennials. I can also tell you that 58% of our Instagram audience (58%) is from the United States. If 120,000 people liked this post, it stands to reason that a lot of people could relate to having too many tequila shots, and that a good chunk of those people were American millennials. Meaning, yeah, some of us might be cutting out alcohol, but lots of people aren’t. Is that an extremely flawed/baloney way of bringing about that conclusion? Of course. But so is asking people who are already doing the behavior you want to write about to confirm that very behavior, and then try to claim that enough people are doing it that it bears a huge significance.
Here’s another example:
For an account with 4.9 million followers, this post got over 65,000 likes. Again, that’s a hell of a lot of people who can relate to the feeling of drinking a lot of vodka. Does that mean people our age, who are the types of people who like memes, are drinking more vodka? No less than people who post pics of their eggs benedict are only eating eggs benedict.
Does the engagement on these types of memes mean that millennials are drinking more than ever before? Does it mean that we’ve changed our drinking habits? No. It doesn’t really mean anything, and that’s my point. Some people like things, some people don’t like things, and people will do what they like and it doesn’t have to signal an entire cultural shift. I’m not an expert, or a sociologist, or anyone with a science background, but I would venture that as long as people have issues and insecurities and work stress and reality TV to watch, people will continue to drink alcohol (until they invent a magic pill that will get you drunk without any of the calories or hangover). I’d also guess that as people get older and their hangovers get progressively worse and they get married and start having kids and assuming other, more important responsibilities, they may consider drinking less. Or at least, they consider binge drinking less—a 2012 study found that young people are more prone to binge-drinking, but baby boomers are more likely to have a drink every day. Are millennials binge drinking less (that is, if we even are really drinking less) because we are tired of drinking and sick of alcohol and going out? Or are we just drinking less because we’re getting older and more tired in general, and alcohol hits you harder as you age? Basically, is this a phenomenon that’s (a) even happening for a conscious reason (b) unique to millennials, or is it just a normal product of aging?
I don’t know, and until a more broad and encompassing study is done on millennials and their drinking patterns, neither does anybody else.
Images: Elevate / Unsplash; insta.single, betches / Instagram