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Are We Drinking Less? Exploring the “Sober Curious” Trend

Have you noticed an increase in non-alcoholic beers and wines at the store lately? Or a wider selection of mocktails offered at restaurants? Over the past few years, the food and beverage market has seen an uptick in no- and low-alcohol beverages like lower-alcohol wines, non-alcoholic beers and different mood-enhancing wellness tonics. Non-alcoholic beverage sales increased 33 percent over the last year and this market is expected to increase an additional 31 percent by 2024. But why the sudden interest in these types of beverages? A newer cultural phenomenon coined “sober curiosity” may be at play.

The term “sober-curious” refers to the decision to decrease how much alcohol you consume and, for some, experiment with a completely alcohol-free lifestyle. Research shows that Americans have been drinking less overall. According to Gallup, 60 percent of U.S. adults currently drink alcohol, which is a marked decrease from 65 percent in 2019. In 2021, Nielsen reported that 22 percent of surveyed Americans were cutting back on their alcohol consumption.

This trend is most notable in younger people, a group that notoriously drinks a lot of alcohol. For many decades, experimenting with alcohol and drinking in excess has been seen as a rite of passage into adulthood. But experts believe this culture is changing. Between 2002 and 2018, the number of U.S. adults age 18 to 22 who abstained from alcohol increased from 20 percent to 28 percent, and alcohol abuse among this group decreased by roughly half.

“In the mid-to-late 2000s, getting drunk and binge drinking was a way friendships were formed and solidified – even experiencing the negative effects [like hangovers] together was a key part of making and sustaining friends in adolescence and early adulthood,” said John Holmes, a professor of alcohol policy at the University of Sheffield. “But Gen Zers are more likely to see drunkenness as unpleasant, uncool or uninteresting.”

Why the Shift?

We’ve all heard time and time again about the negative effects of alcohol and are aware that cutting down could provide numerous benefits. However, that information alone historically hasn’t done much to curb a prevalent drinking culture in our society. But the message seems to be catching on among today’s young people.

A More Risk-Averse Generation

Every generation has grown up with their own unique set of struggles and developed their own values and attitudes in response. For example, Gen Zers have grown up witnessing many historic events and periods of instability. From watching their parents struggle through the Great Recession to experiencing a global pandemic, this generation carries uncertainty and worry about the future. And where there’s uncertainty and anxiety, there’s usually also a desire for control and stability. It makes sense that this generation seems to be more risk-averse.

Alcohol is often used as a social lubricant, as it can lower your inhibitions and make you more comfortable talking to people. This is usually seen as a benefit, but many Gen Zers see this as a risk. Research suggests this generation in particular feels a lot of pressure to succeed and take control of their futures, and sees excessive alcohol use as something that can jeopardize that. Forty-one percent of Gen Zers associate alcohol with vulnerability, anxiety and a loss of control. Waking up the morning after a night out questioning what you did or said (referred to as “hangxiety”) is something most people can relate to, but many Gen Zers are deciding this is a risk they’d rather not take.

A Health-Conscious Generation

The sobriety surge has occurred alongside a boom in the wellness industry. While the health consciousness trend isn’t exclusive to any one generation, today’s young people are generally concerned with their health and are becoming more mindful of alcohol’s negative effects. Many young people are recognizing that alcohol takes a toll on both your physical and mental health, so they’re questioning whether drinking is worth it at all.

“Those who are sober-curious are questioning the role alcohol plays in their lives and the when and why that drives their drinking,” says Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a neuropsychologist in New York. “The sober curious movement has led people to see the unhealthy habits that can go hand in hand with alcohol consumption.”

Not Just for Young People

While Gen Z is taking particular interest in lower-alcohol lifestyles, sober curiosity isn’t just for young people. In fact, people of all generations are rethinking their drinking habits and choosing to drink less, which is something everyone can benefit from.

Cutting back on alcohol or even quitting altogether comes with a host of benefits, including improved sleep, better immune function, improved memory, higher energy levels, weight loss and even financial savings. An alcohol-free lifestyle may not be realistic for everyone, but reflecting on your relationship with alcohol and being a little “sober curious” might be a lifestyle change worth considering.

[Hannah Sabitoni]

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