The Future of American Attitudes toward Alcohol
by Mike Kallenberger
With virtually every state government facing serious budget shortfalls, the possibility of new taxes is on almost everyone’s mind, including America’s brewers. It often seems as though so-called “sin” taxes are viewed by legislators as an easy way to increase revenue while minimizing any political repercussions. How likely are further tax increases on beer? We can’t answer that question, but it does raise a larger question about Americans’ attitudes concerning the brewing industry in general.
As we all know, there are those in our country who will work tirelessly to stigmatize—and more importantly, to legislate against—even responsible use of alcoholic beverages. Of course, those of us with a stake in the beer business support any laws that deal directly and specifically with inappropriate use, or abuse, of alcohol (such as underage drinking or driving while intoxicated). Still, while there will always be a strain of anti-alcohol sentiment among a minority in our culture, their relative success or failure depends on their ability to gain support from among the broader population.
Right now that support doesn’t seem to be forthcoming. In fact, Americans’ attitudes about responsible beer consumption are not only pretty positive, they’ve been trending consistently more positive over the last 10 years. For example, almost eight in 10 people agree that “beer is a normal part of American life, just like barbecues, picnics, and sporting events.” This represents an increase of 10 percentage points in less than a decade. Four in 10 respondents disagree that “it sets a bad example to drink in front of children,” an increase of six percentage points over that same time frame.
To the extent that this positive momentum has come about as a result of actions taken by the brewing industry, we should all feel good about ourselves—and keep up the good work. But there’s also reason to believe that the beer industry is actually riding a fairly strong cultural tailwind when it comes to its perceptions among the American public.
And here, then, is the key question: will that tailwind continue? Or will anti-alcohol forces find more fertile cultural ground for their message in the coming years?
Prediction is a dangerous game. But there really are good reasons to believe that American attitudes toward alcohol will continue their positive momentum for the foreseeable future.
This is not to advocate for complacency. But in fact, historical attitudes toward beer and other traditionally-dubbed “sin” categories actually show a pattern in American history, waning and waxing in a cycle that takes approximately 70 to 80 years to run its course. And, if this “temperance cycle” has any validity, the level of anti-alcohol sentiment in this country likely reached a peak sometime around 1990, and is now about 10-20 years into an approximately four-decade run of increasingly favorable attitudes.
The Rhythms of the Cycle
The history of American temperance movements has been well documented. Examining the history of the alcoholic beverage industry and its relationship to its friends and enemies, a pattern emerges: the approximate peaks of American anti-alcohol sentiment occurred in the 1770-80s, the 1840s-50s, the 1910-20s, and—if the cycle holds—in the 1980s-90s. In each case, once the temperance movement had achieved its maximum appeal, the American public’s attitudes toward alcoholic beverages became increasingly positive for up to four decades afterward.
The country’s first temperance movement was led by Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence who was appointed Surgeon General in 1777. His “moral thermometer” ranked the various beverages according to how much their consumption reflected “temperance” or “intemperance.” Rush actually focused on distilled spirits, as he seemed to view beer pretty favorably, at least “when taken only at meals, and in moderate quantity.” With water topping the moral thermometer’s scale at +70, small beer came in at +60, ahead of cider and wine; porter was rated at +20, and strong beer at +10. Proceeding into negative territory, one encounters, in descending order: punch, toddy, grogs, slings, and various liquors. While beverages on the positive side of the scale are linked to “cheerfulness, strength, and nourishment,” those with a ranking below zero come with a long list of associated “vices, diseases, and punishments.”
But Rush’s moral thermometer coincided with what was, in fact, one of those high points in the temperance crusade. Attitudes toward alcoholic beverages in general gradually became more positive over the following four decades, until the 1820s, when, according to Maureen Ogle’s history of the American beer industry Ambitious Brew, “[a new] temperance crusade began in earnest.” This movement gained momentum over the course of three decades, culminating in 1851, when 14 states and territories banned the sale, manufacture, and consumption of alcohol.
But the passage of some form of anti-alcohol legislation is often the beginning of the end for temperance movements. Again according to Ogle: “…by the mid-1850s, some who had once supported prohibition began to reject this extreme solution to the nation’s drinking problem…”
Since that time the national culture has experienced (with all dates approximate):
1820s: Trend of increasingly positive attitudes toward alcohol peaks and begins to decline, as the “temperance crusade begins in earnest”
1850s: Attitudes toward alcohol bottom out with prohibition in 14 states/territories, and begin long improvement
1890s: Positive attitudes peak and begin declining as Carrie Nation leads new temperance crusade
1920s: Attitudes reach low point (shortly after initiation of Prohibition) and begin long improvement
1960s: Positive attitudes peak; many states reduce minimum legal drinking age
1980s: Increasing regulation, including a return by all 50 states to a minimum drinking age of 21, culminating in the excise tax increase of 1991
Extrapolating the rough patterns evident in this cycle would suggest that negative sentiments toward alcohol have once again peaked—and a long-term improvement begun—sometime around 1990, give or take half a decade. (Note that distilled spirits advertising returned to television in 1996, and despite some initial vocal opposition, efforts to reverse this trend have not been effective.)
The Historical Pendulum
It would be foolish to sit back and blindly wait for the “predictions” of any historical cycle to come to pass. After, cycles don’t create human behavior; human behavior creates cycles. But it would be easier to believe that the brewing industry’s efforts will continue to gain energy from this cultural tailwind if we understood a little more about the drivers of these swings in the historical pendulum.
The most plausible explanation lies in the generational theories of historians William Strauss and Neil Howe. (See, for example, Generations: The History of America’s Future 1584-2069. Published in 1991, Generations has made some remarkably accurate predictions about each generation’s attitudes and behavior since then.)
These authors have developed a huge body of work supporting their theory that each American generation collectively exhibits one of four “personality archetypes,” and that the sequence of archetypes follows a regular pattern: the “Nomad,” followed by the “Hero,” then the “Artist,” and finally the “Prophet,” which is then followed by another Nomad generation. This is why many cultural trends tend to follow a cycle of 70-80 years; it takes approximately 20 years for a generation to come of age, so it takes up to 80 years to go through the cycle of four generational types and return to the starting point.
Of course, it’s always tricky to make sweeping generalizations about a group of people as large and diverse as a whole generation. There are people with each sort of “personality” in every generation. But it does seem that there is a strong tendency for certain attitudes and behaviors to be more prevalent in some generations than in others.
In the Strauss and Howe typology, Boomers are a Prophet generation. Prophet generations tend to be both idealistic and self-indulgent when coming of age, but once they reach adulthood they go through a stage of self-righteousness. And in fact each temperance movement in American history occurred when a Prophet generation had reached their family-forming years and their self-righteousness had peaked.
The reasons these movements eventually run out of steam is that Prophets pass into late middle age and are replaced in the family-formation lifestage by a Nomad generation (in this case Gen Xers). Nomads have more pragmatic, balanced attitudes. In fact, in each historical case positive sentiments toward alcohol began their long-term upswing 30-40 years after the first birth year of a Nomad generation, as demarcated by Strauss and Howe:
According to Strauss and Howe Peak of anti-alcohol sentiment
“Nomad” Generation Birth Years and beginning of improvement
Gilded Generation 1822-1842 1850s
Lost Generation 1883-1900 1920s
Generation X 1961-1978 presumably 1990 +5 years
Interestingly enough, the prediction made by Strauss and Howe in 1991 about the transition Gen Xers would make as they grew up—from rule-bending teenagers with too much freedom, to parents who place a high premium on protecting their own kids—seems to be coming to pass. One might think this emphasis on safety might actually lead to wider rather than weakened anti-alcohol sentiment among Gen X parents.
But Xers are also the most pragmatic generation. They may well support tough laws designed to address specific—and specifically dangerous—behaviors, such as underage drinking and drunk driving—while showing less interest in legislation or other prohibitions that assume, broadly or vaguely, that use of alcohol in general is problematic.
It will always benefit the brewing industry to work with moderate alcohol activists to ensure that our products are used responsibly. Likewise, we have to remain vigilant against those who take a more extreme point of view. Even if this argument for a long-term upswing in alcohol attitudes is persuasive, this is no time to breathe a sigh of relief. But it might make our jobs a little easier if we can recognize and responsibly take advantage of this trend toward valuing social drinking and recognizing it as a normal part of American life.
Mike Kallenberger is Manager of Industry and Consumer Trends at MillerCoors. The opinions expressed in this article are his own and not necessarily those of MillerCoors.