It turns out ‘Dry January,’ the annual sobriety challenge that emerged about a decade ago, may actually be a harbinger of a larger cultural shift that has been gaining momentum in recent years, especially among Gen Z and Millennials. In what is being called the ‘sober curious’ movement, an increasing number of younger adults are drinking significantly less alcohol than older generations. A 2018 Berenberg Research report, in fact, found that Gen Z are drinking 20% less alcohol per individual than Millennials, who themselves are drinking less than Gen X and Boomers did at their age. And the phenomenon is widespread; most European countries, the U.S., Australia and New Zealand have seen noticeable declines in drinking among Gen Z according to a BBC report.
What’s motivating the sober curious?
Driven by a more risk-averse and cautious mentality, young adults’ reasons for not wanting to consume alcohol tend to be rational, such as a fear of losing control, the expense of drinking and the potential to feel negative physical effects. In addition, a focus on health and wellness are key motivators for limiting or reducing alcohol across adults of all ages, according to a 2022 report by the Food Institute, which cited improving health (47%), managing weight (38%), reducing risk of disease (25%) and avoiding a hangover (23%).
Moreover, when it comes to coping with daily stresses and anxieties, Gen Z takes a divergent approach from their older global counterparts for whom drinking alcohol is a significant source of decompression. Kantar Global MONITOR, in fact, finds that members of Gen Z are 24% less likely than the total global population to agree that they drink alcohol to maintain or improve mental wellbeing, and are 21% more likely to opt for mood-enhancing food and beverage ingredients instead.
Low- and no-alcohol drinkers tend to be active and health-conscious
Exposed to more beverage options that offer both physical health and mood-enhancing benefits, consumers are increasingly turning toward no- or low-alcohol drinks in lieu of traditional wine, beer and spirits. A 2022 IWSR Drinks Market study found that sales of no- and low-alcohol beverages increased by more than 7% in volume in 10 key global markets, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, South Africa, Spain, the U.K. and the U.S.
Although Gen Z drink alcohol the least among generations, Millennials are currently the most likely consumers to drink low- and non-alcoholic beers and spirits, according to Kantar Global MONITOR data. Looking more closely at these drinkers, we found they tend to be more physically active than the global average (43% vs. 37%) and concerned about the environment (61% vs. 55%). They are also food-conscious, with many turning to healthy food choices more frequently than average. Interestingly, while these consumers are drinking low- and no-alcohol alternatives, most (54%) still drink regular forms of alcohol as well, indicating that they are striving for healthy balance and moderation.
Source: Kantar Global MONITOR 2022; Low- and no-alcohol drinkers are defined as respondents who drank Low-alcohol beers and liquors or non-alcoholic beers/liquors in the last 4 weeks
New opportunities, today and beyond
The shift to a more sober social culture is putting pressure on the food, beverage, dining and entertainment industries to adapt. Rather than limiting growth for alcohol-related businesses though, the rise of sober-curious drinkers presents new opportunities for companies and brands to expand their audiences and engage both consumers who are cutting back on alcohol and those who abstain altogether.
As consumers seek to enhance their health with beverages, companies and brands are offering a growing array of products that promise a similar experience to traditional alcoholic beverages and are aimed at delivering on taste, refinement, novelty, prestige, presentation, and, of course, health. In particular, the blending of mood-changing and health benefits may prove to be an alluring claim, especially for those who are more health-conscious.
The flavors and positioning of non- and low-alcoholic branded beverages, in fact, may become as or more sophisticated than many established alcohol brands. That, combined with the availability and legalization in some markets of other mood-enhancing ingredients like cannabis, mushrooms and other substances, may lead to consumer use of alcohol as a mixer for adding a specific flavor or nuanced mood-altering effect to their no- or low-alcoholic beverage of choice.