We knew not what we did.
So, apparently, it’s the summer of the Aperol Spritz. It could always be worse. Six years ago was the summer of the cicada, when their buzzing bodies swarmed the east coast in an Old-Testament-style plague. Seven summers before that, everyone was reading Eat Pray Love. The Son of Sam was a summer thing, too.
We should have seen it coming. The Aperol Spritz has been cropping up for a couple years on menus where before it would have looked hilariously out of place: I’ll venture relatively few non-Italians were even aware of the pretty pink aperitivo half a decade ago. But thanks to an aggressive advertising push by its parent company Campari America, #aperolspritz has catapulted to 1.25 million tags on Instagram as of this writing… Campari America splashed the logo across the Hampton Jitney and flooded branded events with Instagram-friendly merch. Now even the late-night pizza place on my overpriced but far-from-fashionable D.C. block has amended its offerings – pints, pitchers, well drinks – to include the spritz, 2019’s favorite drink.
Not much of a drink, it combines Aperol (which is like Campari but weaker and somehow sweeter) and Prosecco, and then further weakens them with a splash – sorry, a spritz – of bubbly water. With its sunset-ready hue, Aperol is an easy sell to the itchy-thumbed Instagram addict, and it costs less than a real drink. Which seems fair, seeing as those who order the pinkish-orange beverage in time for sunset’s gentle glow aren’t drinking for alcohol effect… They’re drinking for camera effect.
What we seem to be calling, per Sunday Styles, a “spritz craze” also speaks to a longer-running tendency among the digitally native drinker, or non-drinker as the trend would have it: Millennials, the youngest of whom turned 21 two years ago, just don’t get drunk. Demand for non-alcoholic beer is up. And naturally, so is production. Non-alcoholic gin, somehow, is a thing now: Seedlip, a boozeless juniper-infused “spirit,” strives to make teetotaling less taboo. High-end restaurant menus answer the call with mocktails that photograph like the real thing – typically better, actually – but hit like a Shirley Temple, lest the mind behind the phone lens lose focus. Beer sales are also in a five-year slump.
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Millennial #soberlife is probably a healthy development. The surgeon general has never actually recommended getting shitfaced. Alcohol consumption has been known to fuzz up one’s thinking, and we all carry rectangles in our pockets with the power to broadcast and amplify our least lucid ideas. Drinking less makes good social sense in the digital age… Which is roughly what market analysts conclude when pressed to explain millennials’ rising interest in nonalcoholic beer, let alone the surging demand for such a substance among the same demographic that used to buy more alcoholic beer – as one did not used to have to specify – than any other.
“Control” is what the social mediaite seeks, according to an analysis of alcohol trends from the marketing research firm Mintel. “Control has become a key watchword for today’s younger drinkers,” according to Jonny Forsyth, Mintel’s food and drink analyst: “Unlike previous cohorts, their nights out are documented through photos, videos and posts across social media where it is likely to remain for the rest of their lives. Over-drinking is therefore something many seek to avoid.”
It’s not just your look that needs to be Instagram-worthy at all times – but your composure, on every level, all the way down to your blood alcohol content.
A sense of constant surveillance is to blame… surveillance not by Siri, but by each other’s prying eyes. In a world where everyone’s on the verge of posting a picture that your boss, your ex, your in-laws, and a billion so-called strangers can instantly scroll past, or pause over and screenshot, it’s not just your look that needs to be Instagram-worthy at all times – but your composure, on every level, all the way down to your blood-alcohol content.
Compared to other old-fashioned habits to die at the hands of a generationally endemic social media fixation – like talking to each other during meals or enjoying a sunset without having to post a picture of it – habitual heavy drinking may not at first seem so great a loss. We’ve long known millennials – the sober, sexless, nevertheless burnt-out generation – party less than their generational forebears. “Wellness oriented” and “sober-curious” are the favored catch-all terms for the trend. The thing is, now that the whole cohort’s come of age, we have enough evidence to be worried about them.
Anne Helen Petersen, in a Buzzfeed News essay, describes the phenomenon of millennial burnout as a generational affliction no number of Aperol Spritzes can fix. Professionals in their twenties and thirties are finding themselves prematurely over it: Expensively educated and gainfully employed, or at least working off student debt, they’re reaching the frayed ends of their psychic endurance sooner than makes sense to their elders or themselves. Being “always on” workwise – the expectation that we be available to answer clients’ and supervisors’ e-mails at all hours – could be the culprit, Peterson partly concludes. “Why am I burned out? Because I’ve internalized the idea that I should be working all the time,” she writes.
But being “always on” socially is somehow even worse: Maintaining a social media presence arguably asks even more of us than a day job that digitally bleeds into early mornings and evenings. In a new effort to stem users’ soul-sapping compulsion to strive for their peers’ approval, Instagram recently decided to make the number of “likes” on posts invisible to “reduce pressure” on users. They’re hiding likes already in six countries – Australia, Brazil, Ireland, Italy, Japan, and New Zealand – to lighten Instagram-induced anxiety. In the Instagram age, leisure is also work: There is no rest.
Maybe millennials’ growing distaste for alcoholic misadventure just shows how much we’ve matured. But somehow, I don’t think so. All I can see through the Aperol-tinted rearview is how much we’ve lost: Of all the things social media, and the first generation to be molded by it, have reputedly killed – from nightclubbing to infidelity – a stiff drink seems like one we could really use right now.
There was far less shame, we all knew, in being included in the party girl PowerPoint than being left out.
As this summer’s trendiest drink – what with its ubiquity both online and in real life – won’t stop reminding me, millennials, social media, and alcohol weren’t always this way. The dawn of my drinking career slightly preceded social media’s complete stranglehold on my generation’s sense of self. There was a time – I swear – when shameless celebration of doing what we weren’t supposed to was the whole reason to log on. Social media didn’t feel like surveillance. It was a high-tech scrapbook that we thought the adults would never see. Wanting nothing so much as to look cooler than we felt, we used social media to discuss and document our misdeeds. The world was new. Just as Lewis and Clark wouldn’t have ventured west of the Mississippi without sketchbooks and cartographical equipment, we carried digital point-and-shoot cameras to house parties – lest history forget that one summer night someone’s parents were out of town, and we took turns drinking gin punch from a turkey baster on the patio. On the Sabbath, as was then the custom, we uploaded the contents of the cameras’ memory cards, came up with captions – in this instance they were mostly variants of Baste your face! – and tagged our friends, then waited around for them to tag us in turn.
Being a true “digital native” mostly means having been aware of an online audience for as long as you’ve been aware. Facebook opened for public use the year I started high school, and Instagram entered mainstream use four years later. So my peers and I are not true digital natives. But, while we technically remember life before likes, posts, and friend requests, it was a stage of life in which few of our outward actions had any lasting consequences. And, crucially, we were among the first not to imagine how we’d reinvent ourselves once we got to college. Instead, our first impressions on our peers were pre-written. We already knew how our future classmates would find out who we’d been before: We scrolled through our tagged photos and wall posts to judge whether they were an adequate summing up of our lives thus far. I distinctly remember concluding – with self-conscious pride in those Saturday nights on the parentless patio, lost to memory but alive online – that, yes, this digital distillation of me would do just fine. (At around the same time, when I first read that Isabel Archer, heroine of Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, “often surveyed with complacency the field of her own nature,” I recognized myself and my friends, reading and rereading our own social media profiles and liking what we saw.)
My pioneering micro-generation were the digital prelapsarians. The paranoia that’s sobered us since had to be foisted on us from on high.
It didn’t really take at first. As I was recently reminded, it took the dean of students discovering our vast and publicly searchable cache of party pictures. In consultation with the school’s college counselor, the dean prepared a PowerPoint slideshow. They called a special assembly, assured us that every elite college’s admissions director was always watching, and proceeded to click through tagged Facebook photos of upperclassmen sipping from a handle of Smirnoff by someone’s pool and day students posing with a keg by an abandoned ice house in the woods.
It didn’t occur to us to worry whether the way we were using the Internet was irresponsible – because irresponsibility was what we’d aimed for.
There was far less shame, we all knew, in being included in the party girl PowerPoint than being left out. The only photo of my friends and me was tragically tame: One of us had what could have been a hand-rolled cigarette, while another held up a hardcover copy of Philip Larkin’s High Windows, and a third sipped from a red solo cup while winking at the camera. (We were sophomores; the turkey basters full of gin punch would come later.) A classmate “woker” than me recently recalled this assembly to me at our 10-year reunion. It was, she argued, an evil exercise of voyeuristic slut-shaming on the part of the dean and college counselor… because the Smirnoff girls were in bikinis, she remembered. I only remembered wishing I’d looked less nerdy by comparison.
We knew not what we did, but of course that was the whole point. It didn’t occur to us to worry whether the way we were using the Internet was irresponsible – because irresponsibility was what we’d aimed for. Twelvish years ago, posting while drunk, or about being drunk, was not so much something to be feared as it was fodder for hours of fun, often at the expense of strangers. The site “Texts From Last Night” aggregated submissions from recipients for readers’ Sunday morning schadenfreude. Facebook groups are now neighborhood committees and promotional platforms. But back then, they were meaningless coalitions that users could opt to join in expression of some loose affinity. One in particular, “In Fairfield County, We Pregame Harder Than You Party,” struck a chord with my cohort. It was a yawp of civic pride to click “join” in public agreement that we could drink those hicks from Litchfield under the table, any day of the week. Idiotic, sure, and certainly not something you’d want the admissions director to know. But I’d also call it a fundamentally human impulse. We see the same psychological cocktail at work in the Instagram addict, for whom a “like” on a picture of an Aperol Spritz glistening in the fading light of the golden hour translates to membership in an identity larger than one’s lonely self.
Every generation falls under the sway of some new addiction and outgrows an old one. It’s not our fault, per se. But when I read that social media’s conditioned the digital native to fear freedom from “control,” as the Mintel report found, all I could think was, What have we done?! Early adopters of social media didn’t know that our enthusiasm for these platforms would make them so omniscient that, within a decade, getting drunk enough to forget yourself wouldn’t be worth the risk. And now it’s too late. It’s the summer of the Aperol Spritz. Consider the sheer volume of photo-ready aperitivi you’d have to toss back before you stop caring whether the light is hitting your drink right. The way the spritz generation drinks, they couldn’t lose control if they wanted to.
Alice Lloyd is a writer in Washington, D.C.