Gen Z ushers in a new era of prohibition but not because of a widespread temperance movement—it’s just the economy

These days, speakeasies have turned from exciting mobster hangouts to cheesy millennial spots where the cocktails cost upwards of $20. The excitement and scandal is wiped from the locale as viral TikToks tell everyone to go to this (not-so) hidden bar in Chelsea to consume very legal substances with men named Connor. Many Gen Zers aren’t really interested, and not just because these places are corny. Instead, taking a page from the era of enforced abstinence, these young adults are choosing to stay in and drink—or refrain from imbibing altogether.

‘Dry January’ has been a new-year trend for some time, but many consumers are staying dry well into the year. More than a third of Americans (41%) say they want to drink less in 2024, with Gen Zers especially looking to pump the brakes on their habits (at 61%), according to a survey of more than 1,000 people conducted by advertising company NCSolutions. 

It’s not just happening in the U.S. China’s young adults are drinking less, according to IWSR, something the research group attributes to its 20% unemployment rate for college graduates. IWSR data from 2022 shows that almost half of adult drinkers across 17 focus markets reported an interest in moderating their consumption of alcohol. It’s an obvious dent to the luxury market. Across the board, premium wine sales are down according to Silicon Valley Bank’s 2024 State of the US Wine Industry report and the high-end spirit industry is also suffering. 

It’s a strange cry: why isn’t our youth drinking? Well, it turns out a number of socioeconomic factors make shots, beer, and wine all the less appealing for consumers; ranging from the high cost of going out to a habit of general introversion. 

First, as the fall in high-end spirits shows, many drinkers are simply turning to cheaper hard spirits and wine. And even the famously more affordable beer has been hit by inflation, as sales are down.

Consumers of all generations are shifting toward non-alcoholic beverages as they look to moderate their habits in an age of greater awareness of substance abuse and mental-health issues. Non-alcoholic products sales spiked by 113% from 2020 to 2021, per NielsenIQ. Glorified water company Liquid Death has become a pervasive non-alcoholic staple and was valued at $700 million in 2022.

While the pandemic likely accelerated this trend, young adults have been cutting down on their drinking for decades now. The number of young adults (18 to 34) who say they drink at all has decreased from 72% to 62% over the course of two decades, per a Gallup report released in 2023, and younger adults who do drink are less likely to do so regularly.

Interestingly enough, older Americans are going the other way. Perhaps due to their greater economic resources, the number of drinking Americans aged 55 and older has gone from 49% to 59% within the same time period. Gallup attributes some of this lush behavior to a generational trait of Baby Boomers (who have always drank a bit more than others). On the other hand, young adults might be drinking less because they’re a more diverse group than other generations and non-white cultures are more likely to drink less, per Gallup. It’s also for wellness reasons, as 36% of Gen Zers are going sober because of mental health reasons, per NCSolutions.

The increase in marijuana consumption and awareness of the health effects of alcohol are also likely factors in the weaking dependence on alcohol. Indeed, the partial legalization of weed has made marijuana more of a fixture, as usage for young adults has doubled since 2013, according to Gallup, with-e-cigarette use rising as well. 

The booze industry (perhaps soon to be the juice industry) is eager to catch up. And Molson Coors’ CEO announced last year that “we’re moving into non-alc products,” in a recognition of Gen Z’s sober or sober-curious behavior.”

Going out for drinks (in your living room)

It’s possible that drinking culture is also on this generation’s mind. Growing up in an age where their actions  are exhaustively documented, Gen Z is more hesitant to be rowdy, since they know the evidence might be part of a long-term digital footprint. Almost half (49%) say that their “online image is always at the back of their mind,” per Google Research as cited by BBC. 

In line with this new image-consciousness, young people are not only drinking less—when they do, it’s a less visible act. Navigating an economy marked by introversion, young adults’ light wallets are making this group even more reclusive, as 60% of women drinkers told delivery app Drizly in 2023 that inflation impacted how often they go out. One-in-five respondents said they’ll opt to drink from home (or DFH, if you will) more often in 2023 versus 2022. Sober people are staying in too, as evidenced by the skyrocketing of non-alcoholic delivery sales by 290% in 2021, per Drizly. Sober or not, it’s no surprise that after a mandated lockdown, some people might still be shy to go out and have face-to-face time with strangers. And even if they want to go to a bar, people are more deterred by the hefty price tag of “letting loose.“

Indeed, it appears as if we’re in a new era of abstinence, a 21st century take on prohibition, if you will. But instead of being barred by our government and a fear of crime, it’s our own economy and sociopolitical issues prohibiting indulgence. 

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