America's Average Drinker Is Now An Elder Millennial

Gen Z is imbibing less than any generation of young people that came before them.

The younger generation finally agrees with what the D.A.R.E. program always tried to teach us: Drinking isn't cool. A new Gallup poll on Americans' drinking habits found that adults aged 18-34 have reported drinking steadily less every year since 2001, while Americans 55 and older are drinking steadily more. Apparently our mental image of a wild kegger might need to be adjusted to include a much more gray-haired crowd.

The Gallup data comes from polling thousands of people on their drinking habits, and the responses are from three time periods: 2001-2003, 2011-2013, and 2021-2023. Most revealing is not just that our habits have changed—our entire perception of the act of drinking seems to have shifted as well.

How America’s drinking habits have changed over time

Young adults in the 18-34 range are now drinking roughly as much as those 55 and older. The number of young adults who say they "ever have occasion to use alcoholic beverages" has fallen from 72% to 62% of respondents since 2001, while the 55-and-up crowd who drinks alcohol has increased from 49% to 59% in the same timeframe.

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Those between the ages of 35 and 54 (a group that includes myself) had the highest contingent of self-reported drinkers, at 69%, which hasn't changed much since 2001, when 67% reported drinking alcohol.

When the youngest group does drink these days, they tend to drink less often. Those who reported they'd consumed an alcoholic beverage within the past seven days is down to 61%, down from 67% in the 2001-2003 time period.

The number of respondents who report drinking "more than they think they should" has dropped from 28% in the 2000s and 2010s to 22% now. Middle-aged folks report that the amount of drinking has largely remained the same, while the elder crew's hard-partying numbers have increased slightly.

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Why younger people are drinking less

Though there's no single apparent cause for young people's loss of interest in alcohol, the Gallup poll provides some possible reasons for the drop in drinking. A marked increase of marijuana usage in the younger age group could signal that people using weed instead of alcohol to kick back more often—yet it's worth noting that middle-aged people are using more weed as well, and they remain steady drinkers. Younger people's health concerns around drinking have also increased quite a bit: 52% of respondents in that group now think that even moderate drinking is unhealthy, whereas only 34% thought so just five years ago.

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Demographics are also changing. Non-white Americans as a category has historically included fewer drinkers, and since racial minority populations between the ages of 18 to 34 now make up about half of that age group (up from about a third in the 2001-2003 timeframe), the current data could simply be an expansion of that drinking trend.

The Americans most likely to drink alcohol

Middle-aged people are now the most likely to drink alcohol in America, and they have been for some time now. This might seem like an insignificant shift, but it changes who booze is marketed to, which affects things like the types of celebrities who might want to get in the alcohol game (depending on the age group of their fans), what sorts of new products come to market in the future, and more. Super Bowl commercials might even look different, focusing less on being cool and more about winding down with a cold beer. In this case, the kids have spoken, and we're sure the alcohol industry is listening.

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