Make no mistake: if you live in a big city like NYC, LA, or Chicago, there are going to be a multitude of 12-step meetings catering to a variety of demographic populations. LGBT meeting? Of course. Atheists/agnostic-focused? Most likely. Women-only, men-only, no problem, there’s a meeting for you.
But in many meetings – especially those in cities with fewer options – there is less and less of a representative demographic attendance by age. “Old-timers” does not necessarily mean an older person by years, but surveys and anecdotal evidence suggest there are more old-timers and other sober-minded individuals over 40 filling up 12-step meetings across the country lately, while millennials are not showing up en masse (at least outside of those brought in via the courts and rehab centers).
Why is this the case? Here are a couple possibilities. To be clear, we don’t present these as necessarily good or bad reasons, just perspectives on the dearth of millennials at AA meetings.
It’s Easier to Do Everything Online
Whether it’s ordering paper towels online, getting a burrito delivered, paying bills via a bank app, watching a movie on a laptop, or even meeting potential mates (or, let’s be honest, text buddies with the slight potential of an eventual in-person meeting), younger people gravitate towards making formerly public events into online (non)-encounters whenever possible.
If it’s preferable to watch the new Marvel movie on your computer rather than go sit in a theater with strangers, it’s no surprise that baring the most intimate details of your life – and specifically details related to substance abuse which can bring shame and embarrassment – in a room full of strangers can feel less appealing than doing that same thing from the comfort and privacy of home in an online forum.
A One-Size-Fits-All Approach Doesn’t Fit Some
AA promotes itself as a program designed for anyone who wants to stop drinking. There are famously no other bars to entry. Which is, of course, extremely inclusive.
But many newcomers to AA find that, while all are welcome, there is a one-size-fits-all approach to their issues, whether they are fresh off their 5th DUI arrest or they are a high-functioning drinker looking for a healthier lifestyle. AA was the only game in town (or at least in a lot of towns) for decades, but now there are a variety of options for people seeking a healthier relationship (or no relationship at all) with alcohol.
Younger people love variety, and they love getting “the best,” or at least “the best for me.” For a generation who has never known anything but a world of hundreds of cable TV channels with infinite programming, being offered one option of “the program” can be off putting.
Dogma Is Not in Style
It’s not uncommon to go to an AA meeting and hear many people share how much they disliked religion growing up because it demanded so much conformity, only to have those same people talk like a walking audiobook of the Big Book and refuse to humor any talk or ideas that might contradict the well-worn tenets of the program.
“Dogma” is not a bad word, and yet it has to come be seen as a pejorative term. It is defined as “something held as an established opinion” or “a code of such tenets.” Based on that definition, it is hard to argue that much of what is heard in AA meetings – from old-timers and newbies alike – falls squarely in the territory of dogma. Right or wrong, dogma is not trending among millenials.
They Want the Science
For all of the wonderful aspects of AA and the many, many stories of renewal and revival that have come from the AA rooms, it must be recognized that AA is a tradition more than a science. By its own admission, it is at least in part the product of supernatural revelation which has been handed down through shared wisdom over the years, often outside the worlds of medicine and science. It’s literature and its meetings are full of religious statements, anecdotal evidence, and folk wisdom.
All of which may be exactly what a younger generation needs to address alcoholism and drug use. But for a generation who has largely rejected religion, who grew up on Bill Nye the Science Guy, and often looks back on its ancestors as a source of shame, not wisdom, the appeal of AA may not be what it once was.
There is a Preference for “I” Not “We”
The Greatest Generation – many of whom were AA’s early adopters – gave way to the Baby Boomer “me generation,” and that trend from societal identity to hyper-individualized identity has not stopped, leading to what Time Magazine in 2013 called “The Me Me Me Generation” when speaking of millennials.
AA literature is full of references to “we” as opposed to “I,” and the very basis of the program is that a person can only stay sober by helping his brothers and sisters do the same. In a world focused on selfies and neverending, personally-curated social media highlight reels about one’s life, is there still a place for anonymous support from and for others struggling in your midst?
What Do You Think?
At Clean and Social, we want to know what you think. After all, it’s the people not going to meetings (and their friends) who really have a sense of why millennials are not as interested in AA as previous generations.
Think these reasons are justifiable, stupid, totally off? Have other ideas for why the generational split is happening? We want to know. Tell us in the comments.