Substance abuse – both of alcohol and/or illicit drugs – has always maintained a consistent presence in American culture. As new drugs have been developed over the decades, their popular use has gone hand in hand with sweeping societal changes. From the hallucinogens and barbiturates of the ’60s and ’70s to the cocaine and meth crazes of the ’80s and ’90s, it often seems that illicit substances are as much of a trend as anything else. So what do those trends look like for each generation of Americans?
Since the 1970s, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) has queried a representative sample of U.S. households on their drinking, smoking, and illicit drug habits1. This has revealed a decades-long picture of how many people abuse a variety of different substances. We’ve analyzed this data and separated them by age to show trends in use of 10 different classes of substances throughout four generations of Americans: the Depression-era Lucky Few (born 1923–1942), the Baby Boomers (1943–1962), Generation X (1963–1982), and Millennials (1983–2002). In examining the life course of each of these generations, we can see which proportion of, and at which ages, each reported using a given substance within the past year.
Top Substances Over Time
Throughout all four generations, alcohol has been the most commonly used substance within the past year. At their peak, over 80% of Millennials, Gen Xers, and Boomers had used alcohol recently. For the Boomers, 19 was the age during which alcohol was most frequently consumed, whereas Gen X and Millennials peaked at age 22. Even the Lucky Few showed a past-year usage prevalence of over 80% in their early 40s.
Marijuana was the second-most-used drug for all of the generations – but as you might expect from the emerging drug culture of the 1960s, Boomers stand out from the pack2. Boomers, Millennials, and Gen Xers all saw their recent marijuana usage peak around ages 18–20, but while the Millennials and Gen Xers showed a peak prevalence of about 30–35%, around 50% of Boomers in that age group reported using marijuana within the past year.
Stimulants and Sedatives: A Boomer Throwback
With the rising national crystal meth epidemic of the ’90s and 2000s, you might think Millennials would be the ones most commonly using illicit stimulants. In fact, while Boomers’ stimulant usage peaked slightly later than the other generations at age 22, their peak frequency was nearly triple that of both Gen X and Millennials. This may be explained by the fact that amphetamines were often prescribed as a treatment for depression after World War II3 but were later subject to a regulatory crackdown due to widespread abuse.
Generational trends in sedative usage show a similar pattern. In the ’60s, new barbiturates, such as pentobarbital and secobarbital, were frequently prescribed for insomnia and anxiety, and survey data show that almost 10% of Boomers abused sedatives at peak4. However, these drugs5 were later phased out in favor of the safer, more effective class of anti-anxiety medications known as benzodiazepines. Gen X peaked at fewer than 3% reporting abuse of sedatives within the past year, and for Millennials, the line is practically flat.
Prescription Painkillers: Millennials’ Drug of Choice
So which drugs have risen to prominence as the most popular among Millennials? For this generation, the trend is especially clear: Prescription painkiller abuse is more common among Millennials than any generation before. At their peaks, fewer than 8% of Boomers and Gen Xers abused painkillers in the past year – but over 12% of Millennials ages 19–20 report recent painkiller abuse. As prescription opioid abuse6, diversion, and overdose7 continue to plague the U.S., this generation could be at greater risk of addiction than ever.
The data were obtained from the United States Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and it includes the annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health (formerly the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse), which spans 1978 to 2013. These surveys offer estimates of substance use among Americans ages 12 and above, including numbers on the use of alcohol, tobacco, and a variety of classes of illicit drugs. The data include prevalence of usage of given substances among a number of age groups, and specifies usage within the past month, past year, and ever in their lifetime.
These collected surveys were entered into the Python pandas data analysis package and filtered to group the data into 10 major classes of substance usage. The U.S. population over age 12 in a given year was used to weight individual participants’ responses in that year, and determine the percentage of the population that a given response is representative of. As the surveys’ coding of age varied from year to year and sometimes represented ranges rather than specific ages, yearly population pyramid data were used to adjust the weight of each response in order to ensure that the weighting reflected the year’s population distribution.
Respondents were grouped by birth years into four groups, representing four generations of Americans born from 1923 to 2002: the Lucky Few born from 1923–1942, the Baby Boomers born from 1943–1962, Generation X born from 1963–1982, and Millennials born from 1983–2002. All responses with birth years falling outside of 1923-2002 were discarded. Numerical vectors were calculated in order to graph the ages of respondents along with the percentage of Americans of each age who used a given substance in the past month, year, or over their lifetime. These graphs were then smoothed to remove transient noise.
note: there is a interactive graph on the original source