Humans have been writing for five thousand years — and drinking longer. Archeologists recently discovered a 13,000-year-old beer in a cave near modern-day Haifa, Israel, and there is archaeological evidence of alcohol consumption around the globe by 5000 BCE. Alcohol’s draw is a cocktail of biology, psychology, and social norms. Among other things, it lights up the brain’s dopamine reward system. For much of history it was safer to drink something fermented than water — if TikTok had been around before Christ, there’d likely have been fitness influencers encouraging us to drink less water and more Modelo. Through the modern era, we’ve integrated the firewater into some of our most enduring rituals. Humanity has a deep-rooted affair with fermentation.
But the data suggests that Western culture is undergoing a structural shift away from alcohol as entertainment, social lubricant, self-medicament, or ritual. Everyone but the liquor industry views this as a positive development, as alcohol is the third-leading cause of death in the U.S. and the No. 1 risk factor for premature death among young men. Like our relationship with alcohol itself though, the story isn’t that simple.
Between 2002 and 2018, the share of college students who don’t drink alcohol jumped from 20% to 28%, and, overall, Gen Z drinks 20% less alcohol per capita than millennials did at the same age — which was, in turn, 20% less than Gen X consumed. Among high school students, 39% drank alcohol in 2011; just 23% drink today. Think about that: In just a decade the number of high school students who drink has been almost halved. Youth drinking is declining despite another broad shift, the shrinking gender gap — older Americans are drinking more as a cohort, as a generation of women who grew up when drinking was more acceptable for them ages. The trend is global: In Japan, where drinking binges are ingrained in the work culture, as a means of establishing trust, 60% of the population now believes that after-work drinking is “no longer necessary.” Youth drinking in the U.K. has been falling for two decades.
Drinking hasn’t vanished from youth experience in the same fashion as mix tapes or call waiting, but the cultural impact of the shift is greater than the numbers suggest. Concert promoters report dramatic declines in alcohol sales at shows with younger audiences, and they’ve started stocking more no- and low-alcohol options at concessions. Alcohol giant AB InBev projects no/low brands (variants of traditionally alcoholic beverages without alcohol) will make up 20% of sales by 2025. High-end mocktails and dry bars are on trend, and millions of people participate in Dry January every year.
This generation’s wariness toward alcohol is not unmerited. It can be toxic. Long before it destroys your liver or gives you cancer, it can destroy your life, or someone else’s. Thirty million Americans are in a clinically unsafe relationship with alcohol, and in addition to killing over 80,000 people per year through chronic illness, alcohol leads to nearly 60,000 acute deaths (drunk driving, overdoses, suicide) — including more than 4,000 among people between 18 and 24. When I was in high school in Los Angeles it felt as if there was a picture and flowers every month for a kid killed in a drunk driving accident.
Our understanding of alcohol’s dangers has evolved, and recently. We’ve known for millennia that alcohol has serious negatives: Plato believed in a drinking age of 18. But we’ve mainly worried about excessive drinking and dependence, especially after Prohibition, when scientists wanted to avoid being associated with the perceived overreach of the temperance movement. Moderate drinking was deemed harmless, even beneficial. The first director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Morris Chafetz — who championed treating alcoholism as a medical rather than moral issue — wrote books about the virtues of alcohol, claiming in the 1960s, “there is no sound evidence whatsoever that alcohol causes permanent direct damage to the body.”
Dr. Chafetz was wrong. We now know even light drinking can increase your risk of cancer — alcohol is a Group 1 carcinogen, the highest risk group, which also includes asbestos and tobacco. Research in Europe has found that half of all alcohol-attributable cancers are caused by light or moderate drinking. It’s not just cancer risk: Moderate drinking shrinks your brain. Older studies finding that light drinking could have health benefits have been reevaluated, and their conclusions called into serious doubt. In 2022 the World Heart Federation stated: “Contrary to popular opinion, alcohol is not good for the heart.” And in January 2023 the World Health Organization said what researchers had known for years: “No level of alcohol consumption is safe for our health.”
Today’s youth don’t need to read scientific journals to stay up on the latest science re alcohol, because it’s a hot topic on social media. TikToks and Reels about the dangers and downsides of drinking are a genre, and a skit about “hang-xiety” was a recent SNL hit. Alcohol companies spend nearly $2 billion per year in the U.S. on advertising featuring society’s most attractive people and opulent production values. But on social, a Swiss doctor in cool glasses can reach millions with the shitty news that women are six times more likely to develop cirrhosis of the liver with equivalent alcohol consumption (adjusted for weight) as men. A doctor with a cool beard can reach even more people. Social media has many harms, and even on drinking it’s not great (Google #BORG for more), but it is giving voice to messages that don’t have corporate power behind them.
Despite my experience at Summit at Sea, the turn away from alcohol does not appear to be substituting one chemical for another. The use of marijuana (which gets no free ride on health, either) is increasing as legalization brings weed into the mainstream. Psychedelic drugs, used as party drugs or “microdosed” for creativity or productivity, are experiencing a resurgence. But these increases are dwarfed by the overall decline in the consumption of substances. Marijuana use among teens is actually down over the past decade, and opioid abuse is flat.
Something more is at play. The science of alcohol’s harms is the science of statistics: odds and long-term chances. Not typically winning arguments against youthful energy. Why is this generation so amenable to abstinence?
No/Low … Risk
Drinking isn’t the only vice young people are turning away from. Risky behaviors are down across the board. Young people are much less likely to drive: Between 1995 and 2021, the share of teenagers with driver’s licenses declined from 64% to less than 40%. As someone who got his driver’s license on his 16th birthday and spent 200% of his disposable income on a 1980 Renault Le Car, this seems insane to me. Also, fewer young people are having sex. In 2011, 47% of high school students said they had had sex. By 2021, that number had fallen to 30%. Note: In (un)related news, I lost my virginity at 19. (See above: Renault Le Car. Before I had access to a Discover Card or Android phone, I’d found an equally powerful prophylactic: a french lawnmower with doors that screamed “don’t procreate with this person.”) Similar declines have been observed in other measures of sexual activity, such as numbers of partners. Lawbreaking has been on the decline since the mid-nineties, and the rate of decline accelerated after 2010.
But there’s one risky behavior young people are increasingly engaging in: suicide. Between 2007 and 2021, the suicide rate among Americans age 10 to 24 rose from 6.8 (per 100k) to 11.
This is the tragic tip of an iceberg, the teen mental health crisis Jonathan Haidt predicted a decade ago. Since 2011 the share of high school students reporting “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” has risen from 28% to 42%. A recent study of rising suicide rates found that “the increase in the prevalence of depression among young people during the 2010s was so large it could explain nearly all the increase in suicide mortality among those under 25.” Take a pause. What’s the fucking point of any of “this” if 50% more of our children feel hopeless?
Gen Zers tell us why they feel so bad. They face insecurity on every front: Their careers will be gigs on Zoom calls with low pay and no health care. They’ll struggle to pay off their student loans or buy a house or have children. Mating and sexual dynamics have become increasingly risky, if not plain demoralizing; over a third of Gen Z identifes climate change as their biggest single worry. And, always in the background, is the knowledge that their life has a permanent, public record: 49% of Gen Zers say their online image is in the back of their mind when they are socializing … or drinking.
It’s tempting to write all this off as teen angst and the struggles of young adulthood, but these are fears that didn’t exist 30 years ago. How would you have handled any of this? Were you a thoughtful model of grace at 18?
The irony — and in part, the answer — is that no generation has ever had more support and protection. We used to joke about “helicopter parents” who hovered above their kids, but now we have “snowplow parents” who carve a path for their offspring, clearing life’s obstacles. Parents are closer than ever with their young adult children, thanks to technology that tracks their every movement.
As a member of Gen X, I’d leave home Saturday morning with my Bahne skateboard, 35¢, and an Abba-Zaba bar, not to be seen or heard from for 12+ hours. If my kid is more than 15 minutes late, the Navy Seals and MI6 are activated. Kids’ lives are programmed, pre-planned, and packaged — leaving them with 50% less unstructured time than earlier generations enjoyed. The result is lower resilience and greater anxiety. We use so many sanitary wipes on our kids’ lives, they don’t develop their own immunities.
Once they’re out of the physical nest (but often still tethered electronically), young people respond to this combination of coddling and fear in various ways. Rising anxiety is paired with an obsessive need for control. “Optimization bros” have taken to tracking every glass of water, “hacking” their sleep cycles, and pushing evermore elaborate diet and wellness regimes on their cohort. Tech companies are happy to facilitate this, building tracking of all kinds into our devices and encouraging us to wear them constantly. Clearly, there’s no room for beer in that schedule.
Take a Chance
Every generation inherits the assets and liabilities of previous generations. However, we are maturing an immature generation less capable of dealing with some of the real challenges, and opportunities, we’re leaving them. Instead, we shield them from dangers that likely make them stronger — rejection, a B-, hangovers, the unknown — while letting technology exploit their fears of real or perceived dangers. My mom worried I’d get into too much trouble. Now, I worry my kids won’t get into enough.
The decline in youth drinking is not just about drinking. It’s about a generation that fears the consequences of the slightest slip of impulse control — which could be a spark in a world with a permanent gas leak (social media) ready to ignite a firestorm of shame.
The decline in alcohol consumption has many positives. But it also means a decline in the rites of passage and communal bonding that alcohol historically facilitated. It means a decline in drunken hugs and slurred “I love yous,” fewer first dances, first kisses, first dates. Drinking comes with a lot of risk, but it also opens us to new experiences. It doesn’t have to be via substances, but sometimes, you need to lower your inhibitions.
The phases of my life correspond with an evolution of my favored intoxicants: high school, nothing (I hung out w/Mormons); college, beer and THC; early career, vodka; mid-career, bourbon and rum; present, less bourbon and rum and more THC. I love alcohol and THC and believe I’ve gotten more out of them than them me. Intoxicants have been a social and professional weapon, as integrated into my life as exercise and eating.
I’m a better version of me a bit fucked up. The very definition of a “good” drunk. Funnier, more affectionate, and more in touch with my emotions. Every romantic partner I’ve had has, in a variety of ways, encouraged me to drink more. It’s a bug, not a feature. Some fucked-up sense of masculinity still inhibits my ability to express how much friends/colleagues mean to me unless I have that rush of euphoria inspired by alcohol.
Often, when writing this newsletter, I’ll have a Zacapa and Coke and text people to tell them how much they mean to me. The next day, after reviewing the texts, I feel embarrassed … but no regret. My problem isn’t saying things I don’t mean when drunk, but not saying things I do mean when sober. Hemingway said he drank to make other people more interesting. I drink to make myself more interesting. If the previous sentence sounds a bit pathetic or like a form of alcoholism, trust your instincts.
Life is so rich,