The dry life
Despite the enduring impression that the young and fashionable like to party hard, increasing numbers are taking a pass on alcohol. Caitlin Agnew examines the new trend toward sober living
A few years ago, my aunt announced to the family that her son, then in his early 30s, had given up alcohol. My grandmother, an outspoken Brit who immigrated to Montreal in the 1950s, responded to the news by asking, "Is he sick?" For her generation, alcohol was a fact of life. The Absolutely Fabulous feature film, along with Edina and Patsy's vodka-soaked escapades on the original BBC series, presents a pretty clear idea of the baby-boomer generation's open attitude towards imbibing. But attitudes, like cocktail trends, tend to change with the times. Still, anyone who has followed Generation X's obsession with craft spirits, micro brews and biodynamic wine is likely to be flabbergasted by where drinking trends are headed next.
If it seems like the savvy millennials in your life are eschewing boozy pleasures in favour of other, more sober, pursuits, it's true. Study after study reveals that young people are drinking less than previous generations. A survey by Heineken concluded that 75 per cent of millennials say they prefer to drink in moderation. In March, The Guardian reported that less than half of youth aged 16 to 24 admitted to drinking in the previous week. In June, The New York Post published a story that a growing number of 18- to 34- year-olds prefer staying in and bingeing on Netflix than going out and bingeing on liquor.
While many of us are known to downplay our alcohol consumption when asked (especially if it's a family doctor doing the quizzing), the habit of drinking less is real and reflected by beverage menus across Canada. In Vancouver, the country's epicentre of healthy living, the drinks card at the swish Hawksworth Restaurant features alcohol-free mixes made with does-a-body-good ingredients like coconut water, yuzu fruit and antioxidant-rich pomegranate. At Toronto's Drake Hotel, one of the city's most beloved party spots, visitors can indulge in dry concoctions (the virgin Wanderlast combines lemon, muddled cucumber, mint, raspberry and seltzer water) designed by resident bartender Gord Hannah and sold for $7 a pop. "Even five years ago, the only option was the Shirley Temple," says Hannah. "People are happy they can have something with dinner that's surprisingly good and more thought out than a Coke or a non-alcoholic beer. The stigma [of ordering an alcohol-free drink] is gone." Stubby bottles that once overflowed with malt liquor are even being re-appropriated for cold-brew coffee.
The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health differentiates between "problem drinking," where alcohol use interferes with someone's life, and being physically dependent on alcohol. According to millennials, reasons for choosing lemonade over Limoncello aren't necessarily related to believing they fit either the clinical or popular definition of being an alcoholic. They range from financial reasons to health concerns, to simply having a calendar full of better things to do.
Dr. Joanna Henderson, a clinician-scientist and director of the McCain Centre for Child, Youth and Family Mental Health at CAMH, says she's noticed that young people are thinking more about their alcohol consumption and its consequences. They've also realized that there's a lot more to life than getting wasted. "Broadly speaking, there's growing respect and acceptance of a wider range of choices in adolescents in terms of different kinds of identities and different kinds of activities as well," she says. "Young people have flexibility in how they engage with the world."
For the generation that shares everything on social media, millennials' Facebook posts, Instagram photos, tweets and Snapchat stories are filled with evidence of sober living, from tasteful shots of kale-filled smoothies to glowing selfies at early-morning yoga sessions. This premium on leading – and proudly projecting – a healthy lifestyle has infiltrated all aspects of their lives, as evidenced by the ongoing popularity of group-fitness regimes including running clubs and CrossFit, as well as mindful-meditation apps such as Headspace.
Toronto resident Vanessa Cesario is the 24-year-old behind the style blog The Brunette Salad. Although she regularly drinks alcohol and even has a side gig as a bartender, there's nary a cocktail in sight in her digital life. "No one wants to be that person associated with alcohol," she tells me when I ask her why she chooses not to showcase that part of her life on social media. "It takes a bad toll on your appearance, body, decisions, etc., whereas juice makes you prettier, healthier and your body run at its best." And besides, no one looks good hungover, especially when morning-after selfies are now available in high definition.
Even notoriously hedonistic Hollywood is re-evaluating its tradition of a Champagne-fuelled lifestyle. Reality TV star and pop-culture icon Kim Kardashian doesn't drink. Millennial celebrities like Blake Lively and Kelly Osbourne appear often on lists of stars who eschew alcohol, for reasons that vary from disinterest to hitting a booze-induced rock bottom.
The fashion world is following suit, taking the lead from industry over-achievers such as Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, as well as designers Tom Ford, Marc Jacobs and Jeremy Scott, who all claim not to drink. Ashley Rowe, a Canadian designer based in Marfa, Texas, has been sober since the spring of 2015. "I decided it was either keep partying or try to achieve the things I'd always wanted to do. I knew for me that I couldn't do both," she says. Rowe now feels more focused than ever, a mental clarity reflected in the quality and output of her work and in a spot on the racks at Selfridges in the U.K. for the first time this fall. Still, she says, "I envy those who can drink, do drugs, and wake up the next day and go about their lives."
"I think we've evolved as a generation, and it's cool and admirable to be healthy," says Cesario. Don't tell my gran, but avoiding beer and liquor has never been sicker.