How drinking preferences differ for millennials compared to previous generations

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millennials drinking wine outdoors

The millennial generation, those born in the 80s and early-90s, are often the topic of major news headlines, accused of ‘killing’ various products, industries and social norms. But I’m interested in how their views on alcohol differ from other generations. As a group of people who are seemingly either applauded or criticised for their focus on healthy living, are millennials actually bucking the trend for booze altogether, and if so, why?

Millennial drinking preferences

It comes as no surprise to me or others in this industry that millennials are not drinking as much as other generations. Last year, drinking rates among British adults fell to their lowest number in 12 years, and this has been largely attributed to millennials – more than 40% of whom admit to drinking more low- or no-alcohol drinks.

As well as low drinking levels, millennials are also asking for more from bars, clubs and restaurants when they do drink. A 2017 report from Eventbrite found that: “Millennials would rather spend money on experiences than on physical goods. Status symbols of old – fancy cars, expensive shoes, you name it – have been replaced with photos on Facebook showing off the fun they had at that latest secret gig, the abandoned beach in Thailand or the unforgettable hipster pop-up dinner in Shoreditch.

“This phenomenon was so surprising that people coined a term for it: the Experience Economy. And it partly explains the explosion of the number and variety of festivals we see today – which in itself is not all good news and worthy of a separate article. Suffice to say that events and experiences play a very important role in the life of millennials and that they’re quite happy to pay for the privilege.”

How do millennials’ drinking preferences compare to other generations?

In order to fuller understand millennial drinking preferences, I want to look at how the generations before and after them approach alcohol. Are millennials actually drinking less than other generations, or has drinking dropped across the board?

adults-who-have-drunk- NHS Digital

Source: NHS Digital

The above chart, created with data compiled by the NHS, shows clearly that although all drinking is on a slow, downward progression, the younger generations (16-24) have been ditching the booze significantly more than their predecessors. In fact, it shows that over-65s (the oldest age group featured) are now even drinking slightly more than they were in 2000.

Baby boomers

Baby boomer drinking pint of beer

The baby boomer generation, defined as those born between the mid-40s and mid-60s, are now in their 50s, 60s and early-70s. This generation is often pitted against millennials in modern-media due to their vastly opposing views and lifestyle choices – but does this reflect in their drinking habits?

Well, in short, it seems yes. Whereas we see millennials working to give up the booze and switching over to healthier, non-alcoholic, options, boomers appear to not be following that trend as fiercely. Although it is impossible to paint a whole generation with the same brush, looking at the above NHS data we can argue that boomers, on average, are actually drinking more than any other generation.

Why is this?

We can all theorise as to why boomers may be less likely to pick up a kombucha and more likely to pick up a pint, and there are likely myriad reasons why drinking levels have not dropped as significantly in older generations as it has in younger. A 2017 article in The Guardian hypothesises that it may be because there was less information about alcohol-related health problems: “In our defence, there were fewer health warnings about drinking too much in those days. Every generation thinks it is immortal, and we were no different.”

And this makes sense - if you never grew up learning about the dangers of something, you are much more likely to ignore them further down the line. The writer continues to discuss this, drawing from their own experience: “A few years ago, I began to notice references to “heroic” drinking in obituaries of well-known people – authors, journalists and so on – who had clearly died too young of alcohol-related diseases. I recognised it as a species of denial, demonstrating how hard it is for some people over the age of 50 even to acknowledge the existence of alcoholism. It is part of a growing age divide, more evident every year, that the over-50s still tend to dismiss dangers that are obvious to younger generations.”

Generation X

Generation X, born between the mid-60s and early-80s are known as the MTV Generation. Often characterised as cynical and disaffected, they are known for growing up around the early rise of technology and mass communication. Gen X are now in their late-30s to early-50s and often get lost in modern media between boomers and millennials.

In regards to their drinking habits, Minute Hack have found that Generation X is now hitting a stage in their lives where they are ‘slowing down’ and preferring to drink at home. “The cocktail-crazy Gen X-ers are now at a different life stage and an alcohol rush is not what they are after. A glass of wine at home or the occasional pint at the pub after work are still in favour, but the thirst is not the same.”

With this in mind, they also explain that Gen X is much more likely to stick to what they know than sample something new. “These drinkers are the ones with most brand loyalty. With so many more labels on the market than they grew up with, they tend to stick with what they know and acquired memories.”

Why is this?

Although we can see that Gen X are slowing their consumption down, it seems they can’t let go of drinking altogether as easily as younger generations due to their stiff upper lip, theorises dating and relationships expert, Nichi Hodgson. "Generation X were still suffering from a stiff upper lip problem, they used drink to hide their problems. Younger people don’t want to cover up their problems with drinking, they want to face them."

Generation Z

young girl drinking cocktail

Generation Z, also known as Gen Z, iGens and post-millennials, describes those born between the mid-to-late-1990s and the mid-2000s - a generation that are now in their teens and early 20s. Having reached the legal UK drinking age in the last few years, we are now starting to investigate Gen Z’s drinking habits, whether they are following suit with millennials and ditching the booze or whether they will be carving their own path.

Well, the statistics so far are interesting. Although there is proof that Gen Z are still drinking, there are also reports that claim they are not. In fact, within the same survey from late 2018, it was noted that Gen Z customers are not only four times as likely than other generations to spend up to £15 on a single cocktail, but it also found that nearly half (46%) of Gen Z-ers claimed they would be more likely to order a mocktail.

Why is this?

Well, with both Gen Z and millennials, we are seeing experience purchases lead the consumer. Whereas before people would go to the pub to relax with friends and drink a pint, we are now seeing a cry for customisation and experience. This explains both why customers are willing to spend high amounts on cocktails and why they are more likely to order mocktails. They want something unique, and something tailored to them – a theory I discuss in detail in my book, Bespoke. How to radically grow your bar and restaurant business through personalisation.

Although Gen Z are looking for experiences, we can also see evidence that people are lying about how much they drink in order to assimilate with their generation’s zeitgeist. In fact, younger generations (those aged 16-24) are more likely to lie about how much they drink compared to over-55s. This is likely an attempt to fit into the health-focused bubble that both millennials and Gen Z-ers exist in.

I’m really intrigued to see for how much longer drinking in the UK is on the decrease and how generations continue to react to new cultural norms. It’s an amazing time to work in the hospitality industry as we can see the customer desiring more from bars and restaurants, which is opening the doors to new experiences and innovation from all angles.

It’s the reason that I created Kolibri, an adult soft drink where the sugar content can be decided by the drinker, offering complete customisation in one bottle.