As a millennial, I often find myself reading the news to find out what my generation is killing. Sex. Homeownership. NAPKINS. This week, it seems the people born between 1981 and 1996 are now contemplating slowly killing off … drinking.
Writing in the Atlantic, Amanda Mull makes the case that our generation is growing weary of cocktails and beer and all the rest. We’re still continuing to drink, but we’re doing it a bit less. Her evidence? She heard from over a hundred twenty- and thirtysomethings who are either cutting back on booze, or considering ways to back on it. Her sources got in touch after she put out a request on Twitter, she told me via email. “I said I was kinda tired of drinking lately and if anyone wanted to talk about their attitudes toward drinking for a story, they should email me,” she told me. “The scale of response was incredible—far swifter and more enthusiastic than any other time I’ve requested potential sources contact me in that way.”
While 100 people is certainly a lot, and Twitter is a valid means of finding sources who have experienced something specific, the piece hangs on what amounts to a pile of anecdotal evidence about cutting back on drinking (or just considering cutting back on drinking!) to make a broad case about millennials writ large. As Mull herself writes in her piece: “there isn’t any great statistical evidence yet that young adults have altered their drinking habits on a grand scale.”
If there isn’t currently robust evidence, why frame this as a piece about millennials? Because Mull is, in turn, reacting to “a flurry of trend stories about Millennials […] getting sober.” Since the stats, she notes, don’t bear that out, she decided to try to put a finer point on what’s actually happening and theorize that maybe, we’re on the cusp of quitting booze, but just haven’t done so yet.
The confusing thing is why this has to be about millennials at all. Such framing buys into the false premise that we millennials are a lumbering group of like-minded people operating in concert with each other. That’s not true—as David Costanza, an associate professor of organizational sciences at George Washington University, wrote in Slate last year, it’s really tempting to lump people together by the years they were born. But there’s almost always more variation within a group as big as ‘millennials’ than there is uniformity. “The science says that, despite their popularity, generations simply aren’t a thing,” Costanza wrote.
Here are some alternative theories for what is going on with booze right now (if anything is): It could be that Americans at large are considering cutting down on alcohol, leading to a rise in spendy non-alcoholic beverages, which Mull also points to as evidence of her thesis. (Based on Mull’s own reporting on celery juice spawned from un-credentialed health gurus on Instagram, though, I’m just as inclined to believe that that is its own separate phenomenon.) It could be that some youngish folks are considering scaling back, and those are the ones who are eager to respond to Mull’s call-out, while those continuing to indulge in their usual number of after-work glasses of wine simply didn’t feel strongly enough to reply. It could be that if you talked to twenty- and thirtysomethings in America at any given moment in time, no matter the year or generation, you’d find that many are rethinking their relationship with substances as they enter middle adulthood. In other words, if millennials are doing anything together, it’s aging.
As I read the piece, I did find myself nodding along with many of the sources she followed up with by phone—it’s easy to identify with them, which makes the article feel so good to read. As I type, it’s the most-read piece on the Atlantic’s website. But I still found myself wishing, as I did with Anne Helen Peterson’s mega-viral article on millennial burnout, that this had been written as a reported personal essay, or even a trend piece, untethered to a generation, exploring a very real corner of some people’s lives, rather than a tome on what kids these days are doing. It might just be that people have mixed feelings about alcohol, and it’s nice to commiserate. Anyone want to do that over a drink?