Which Comes First: Sobering Up or Growing Up?

A new study may help young adults curb alcohol misuse.

It seems like a chicken-and-egg conundrum. Young people party, right? They drink, they drink too much, they throw up, they pass out. Why not? Their responsibilities are few, their jobs (mostly) suck, and they long to have fun before the future clamps down on them. But recent research by a team from the University of Missouri suggests that cutting back on alcohol use may actually help young adults feel more grown up.

The study, led by researcher Rachel Winograd, utilized a group of 400 young adults who’ve served as subjects since 1987. They were interviewed about their alcohol use and self-reported levels of immaturity at ages 25, 29 and 35. At 25, the subjects showed no correlation between drinking behavior and how mature they felt. This gradually changed over time; at 29 and 35, alcohol abusers were reporting that they felt they were immature. As Winograd explains it, there appears to be a “window” in the early 20s during which alcohol abuse is considered acceptable: “Young adults are out at bars with their friends, and drinking is a bonding experience.” Even vomiting, blacking out and drunk driving, she adds, get a pass, because everyone else seems to be doing those things, too. But as more and more peers sober up and take on the responsibilities of career and family, those who continue to drink to excess view themselves as layabout party animals.

Winograd’s team theorizes that knowledge of this transition could help improve treatment for alcohol problems. Abusers should be counseled that research now shows that they’ll feel more mature and be more likely to meet long-term goals if they cut back on drinking, they suggest.