WASHINGTON, D.C. — Young adults in the U.S. have become progressively less likely to use alcohol over the past two decades, with the percentages of 18- to 34-year-olds saying they ever drink, that they drank in the past week and that they sometimes drink more than they should all lower today. At the same time, drinking on all three metrics has trended up among older Americans while holding fairly steady among middle-aged adults.
These findings come from an analysis of Gallup trends on Americans’ self-reports of their alcohol drinking habits. To allow for reliable analysis of the trends by age, the data are reviewed in three three-year time periods: 2001-2003, 2011-2013 and 2021-2023.
Young Adults Now Vie With Elders for Lowest Drinking Rate
Gallup’s long-term measure of alcohol consumption asks U.S. adults whether they “ever have occasion to use alcoholic beverages.” While the national average has been steady in the low 60% range for over 40 years, the age trends reviewed for this report show that the rate has declined 10 percentage points over the past two decades among younger adults, aged 18 to 34, falling from 72% to 62%. Meanwhile, the percentage of drinkers has increased by 10 points among older adults, those 55 and older, going from 49% to 59%.
While these groups on either end of the age spectrum now report similar drinking rates, those in the middle, aged 35 to 54, maintain a higher drinking rate, at 69%, on par with the prior 67% readings for this age group.
Fewer Younger Drinkers Drink Regularly
Younger adults who drink are also less likely than they were in the past to say they had an alcoholic drink within the past seven days — an indication of being a regular drinker. The 61% who most recently reported having a drink in the past week is down from 64% in 2011-2013 and 67% in 2001-2003.
Again, older Americans’ reports have gone in the other direction, with a six-point increase since 2001-2003 in drinkers aged 55 and older saying they consumed alcohol in the past week, while middle-aged adults’ drinking reports have been steady.
The net result is that among all Americans (encompassing drinkers and nondrinkers), fewer than four in 10 young adults (38%) now appear to be regular drinkers, on par with older adults (40%) but trailing middle-aged adults (48%). This pattern is a change from two decades ago when younger adults were the most likely to be regular drinkers and older adults the least.
Reported Overdrinking Also Less Common Among Those Under 35
Furthermore, fewer young drinkers today (22%) than in the 2000s or 2010s (28%) report they sometimes drink “more than they think they should.”
Combined with the decline in the percentage of young people who ever drink, this means the rate of overdrinking among all 18- to 34-year-olds is now 13%, down from 21% in 2001-2003. The percentage drinking to excess is essentially unchanged among middle-aged adults, while it has increased slightly among the older group.
The decline in young adults’ self-reported overdrinking is supported by their shrinking estimate of the number of drinks they had in the past seven days. This number has fallen from an average 5.2 drinks in 2001-2003 to 3.6 drinks in 2021-2023. Meanwhile, it has been steady among both older age groups.
Why Are Fewer Young Adults Choosing Alcohol?
There could be several reasons why today’s young adults are less likely to drink than the same age group a decade or two ago.
Demographics: The main reason for the decline in drinking among young adults may be the much greater diversification of their racial/ethnic makeup than has occurred among middle-aged and older adults.
The percentage of 18- to 34-year-olds who are Black, Hispanic, Asian or another racial minority has nearly doubled over the past two decades, making up just under a third of the age group in Gallup’s 2001-2003 data to about half of it today.
Non-White Americans have persistently been less likely than White Americans to use alcohol, and this is seen across all age groups. In 2021-2023, there is a nine-point difference among the youngest group: 57% of non-White 18- to 34-year-olds drink, compared with 66% of White young adults.
Given this, the overall drinking rate among 18- to 34-year-olds has naturally fallen as the proportion who are non-White has increased.
Health concerns: Although demographic changes explain some of the decline in young adults’ drinking, Gallup still finds fewer young people reporting they use alcohol than did in the past, regardless of race. The percentage who ever drink alcohol has come down 10 points since 2001-2003 among those who are non-Hispanic White and has fallen seven points among those who are non-White.
Growing public concern about the health risks of drinking, particularly among young adults, could be behind these shifts.
Gallup’s latest update on Americans’ drinking habits, from a July 3-27 poll, found a marked increase from earlier readings in Americans’ belief that even moderate drinking is bad for one’s health.
Young adults are particularly concerned that moderate drinking is unhealthy, with 52% now holding this view, up from 34% five years ago. That 18-point increase in concern compares with a 13-point increase among middle-aged adults and little change among those aged 55 and older.
Marijuana: Although less evident in the data than the generational shift, young adults’ increased use of marijuana in recent years could be a factor in their declining interest in alcohol.
Marijuana use has almost doubled among adults aged 18 to 34 since Gallup first measured whether Americans smoke it in 2013, rising 11 points to 25% in 2021-2023. However, this isn’t unique to young adults, as marijuana usage has increased just as much over the same period — up 13 points from 4% to 17% — among middle-aged adults.
Still, it’s possible young marijuana users smoke it (or use it in other ways) more often than middle-aged users, making marijuana more of a replacement drug for alcohol for them.
Generational Change Behind Uptick Among Older Americans
And why are today’s older Americans drinking more than the same age group two decades ago? The reason seems to be rooted in generational change.
Baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) have consistently been more likely to drink alcohol than the Silent Generation (born before 1946).
Baby boomers’ drinking rate has been fairly steady over the past two decades, near 65%, but as they replace the Silent Generation as America’s oldest age group, the drinking rate among older adults has increased.
The overall rate of drinking in the U.S. has been generally steady in recent decades, but that masks shifts by age, with older Americans having become more likely to drink and younger Americans less likely. The net result is that after years when younger adults were the biggest drinkers among age groups, they have grown closer to older adults in their drinking habits, leaving middle-aged adults as today’s leading alcohol consumers.
Author: BY LYDIA SAAD, Gallup