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.
“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.”
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.