I lived in the French Alps for nearly six months while in graduate school, ending workdays with long hikes in rugged mountains, eating more than my fair share of freshly baked baguettes, and wandering down cafe-lined streets watching locals sip glasses of wine as meals stretched on for hours and warm wishes of camaraderie and abundance were toasted.

There, I learned that in French, santé is synonymous with the English “cheers.” It also translates to “health.” I’m not sure if that’s the etymological intention, but it certainly gave me pause for reflection, mostly because it conveyed a very different relationship to alcohol than the one I see unfolding in my own culture. It also is underpinned by the irony of a toast for health being associated with alcohol — something that we’re finding has objectively unhealthful qualities.

Today, young people in the United States — and other countries around the world — are drinking less than ever before. According to Pew Research Center, adults ages 18 to 34 who reported that they ever drink dropped from 72% in 2001-03 to 62% in 2021-23.

A 2023 Gallup survey found that the rate of drinking has declined by 10% in that same age group bracket over the last two decades. It seems that temperance is tapping into the roots of modern-day life.

Our relationship with alcohol in the United States has been fraught for about as long as we’ve been a country. To drink or not to drink has long been the subject of social judgment, public scrutiny and moral division. While what we consume is a deeply personal decision, alcohol tends to carry more weight than most other food or drink choices.

Historical angst around alcohol dates back to the late 19th century with the beginnings of an aggressive temperance movement and, later, more than a decade of nationwide prohibition in the 1920s. The temperance movement had numerous religious affiliations and opposed alcohol’s impact on moral character.

In this era, alcohol was framed as the cause of many social problems such as domestic violence, poverty and crime, so constitutional prohibition was enacted to try to remedy these social ills by banning the assumed cause. Today, opposition to alcohol seems to stem more from education and personal choice around general physical and mental well-being.

In response to emerging research about the impacts of alcohol consumption on our health, young adults are forging a new relationship with alcohol than generations before them.

I am Gen Z, while my partner is millennial. We like to keep a healthy amount of generational rivalry present in our relationship, so we have a crudely made Venn diagram taped lopsidedly to our fridge that features “millennials” on one side, and “Gen Z” on the other. Most of the diagram’s contents are lighthearted nods to generational icons and trends. Gen Z gets “Noah Kahan” and “TikTok,” while my partner has claimed “Blink-182″ and “avocado toast” for the millennials.

I don’t often feel like the line between millennials and Gen Z is all that apparent, even when it comes to drinking alcohol or not drinking it. Both generations drink less than those before us. But a closer look shows that abstaining from drinking is more of an identifier for Gen Z than it currently is for millennials.

Research on Gen Z alcohol use

Javier Lastra, one of the lead authors of a 2017 Berenberg Report on generational drinking habits, found that Gen Z (individuals born between 1997 and 2012) was drinking 20% less per capita than millennials who, in turn, were drinking less than Gen Xers and baby boomers did at the same age. One of the main reasons they found to drive this shift? Health, both mental and physical.

“There’s generally a greater awareness by Gen Z (compared to previous generations) about health,” Lastra explains. “They seem to be a much more health-conscious generation than previous ones.”

There is also evidence of increasing health consciousness across all age groups. A 2023 Gallup survey found that 39% of all adults and 52% of young adults (age 18-34) view consuming even one or two drinks a day as bad for health, representing a marked increase in this point of view just since 2018.

Public interest in mindfulness meditation has exploded over the last several decades, the fitness industry is booming to meet rising consumer demand for workout classes and gym services, and there is an increase in the use of health-tracking technologies such as apps and smartwatches that measure sleep, calories and other physiological metrics of health.

Amid all this information about how to be healthier, live longer and look better, decisions around alcohol are just one piece in the broader puzzle.

In recent decades, there has been a proliferation of research suggesting that alcohol is bad for human health.

In 2023, the World Health Organization announced that there is no safe amount of alcohol to drink; any amount of alcohol has adverse health impacts such as increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and mental health problems. Research from the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health shows that alcohol consumption, no matter the amount, alters how our body functions at a cellular level, “triggering a number of adverse effects.” This includes disrupting neural stem cell growth, interfering with the communication between nerve cells and causing inflammation that inhibits our mitochondria’s energy production. That can manifest in poor sleep, inflammation in the body, high blood pressure and other negative effects.

Alcohol is classified as a group 1 carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, placing it among other high-risk carcinogens such as asbestos and harmful radiation. With information like this at hand, it would make sense for anyone of any age to be at least a little scared of alcohol.

History is important, too.

“Young people have seen the behavior of their parents and grandparents and have dealt with family, friends ... people that they know (deal) with addiction issues, probably more than any other generation,” says Gary Frankel, a licensed social worker in Vermont who conducts individual and group therapy sessions for young adults.

According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, more than half of all adults have a family history of alcohol abuse or problem drinking. It’s not uncommon for families in America today to be dealing with the repercussions of generations of familial strife driven by these issues. In that context, it’s simply hard to view alcohol as “cool.” It’s hard to view anything that’s wrapped up in negative feelings as “cool.”

“There’s generally a greater awareness by Gen Z about health. They seem to be a much more health-conscious generation.”

Red Brick Road, a U.K.-based ad agency, conducted a report focused on Gen Z drinking habits in the United Kingdom and found that 51% of Gen Z respondents reported that their “online image” was a factor when going out “socializing and drinking.”

Lastra found the same thing in a separate report: Gen Z is drinking less, in part due to fear that drunk escapades and reckless decisions will be etched into permanence on the internet.

“(Respondents) were afraid of being humiliated,” Lastra explains. But more and more, instead of making choices to avoid negative consequences, Americans are incentivized by the positive effects of their health-based choices.

Health concerns and alcohol use

Just a few weeks ago, I drove by a billboard on Utah’s I-215 that read “Self-care is cool.” In a 2022 McKinsey report, around 50% of U.S. consumers reported wellness was a top priority in their daily lives, which represented an 8% increase from 2020.

This newfound dedication to health seems to be pushing Americans, particularly young adults, away from alcohol. By some estimates, more than a third of people under the age of 27 in the United States abstain from alcohol for the sake of their mental health. And many more take a more moderate and flexible approach.

“Gen Z is drinking less alcohol and I think that where that might stem from is social things like what mental health and physical health is and what it means to be a well person,” explains Frankel.

But prioritizing health isn’t as simple as just abstaining from alcohol. In a culture that’s drinking less, there’s a need to navigate new ways to socialize that don’t involve drinks at the bar with friends.

For centuries, the social hubs where alcohol has traditionally been served have been proven to bring people together and facilitate social connections that benefit health. Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist at Oxford University, found that living near a pub significantly increased an individual’s happiness thanks to the in-person connections and local community fostered through frequent pub visits.

As I flash back to the hum of voices and the rich sound of laughter echoing down the cobblestone streets of that French village, glasses clinking santé, I can’t help but wonder what changes await as the sober-curious movement gains traction. But one issue to be aware of as alcohol becomes less prevalent in the U.S. is creating solutions to mitigate ongoing social division and isolation.

Historically, churches, offices and clubs have been important hubs of social interaction that facilitate community and benefit mental health, but these institutions are declining. In 2020, a Gallup survey found that only 47% of Americans said they belonged to a church, a 23% decrease since 1999.

The share of individuals who work remotely has skyrocketed over the past two decades. And, thanks to the iPhone and other technological advancements, more socializing is happening digitally. While there is merit to being connected digitally, in-person interactions have been shown to have a greater benefit to overall well-being, and American adults are now spending 30 percent less time face-to-face socializing than 20 years ago. Simply put, we are spending less time with other people and that is taking a toll on our health.

Social disconnection, an increasing phenomenon in our culture, can have devastating impacts on long-term health. Researchers from Brigham Young University suggest that poor social relationships or the lack of social community can have health impacts of a similar magnitude to smoking and alcohol consumption.

Drinking alcohol is objectively harmful to health, but, when it comes to curtailing the negative impacts of social isolation, there could be something to be said for the health benefits of finding new ways to go out with friends.

The future of alcohol consumption in the United States is uncertain, but it’s clear that we are all drinking — or not — and hanging out — or not — in markedly different ways than in generations past. Where this will lead in terms of net health and happiness remains to be seen.

As Americans grapple with the idea of what it means to be a healthy person, our culture is at an inflection point, and it’s hard to know whether and how alcohol fits into the equation. It is increasingly apparent that being a healthy person is more complicated than simply being sober. By approaching alcohol more mindfully, young adults are providing space for consumption to be an ongoing and deeply personal choice, rather than a categorical decision. Cheers, or santé, to that.

This story appears in the May 2024 issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.