glass of water surrounded by other beverages
Illustration by Cath Virginia

Why Millennials Have a Weird Relationship with Water

Our strange journey with hydration, from the Capri Sun and Kool-Aid of our youth to our current water bottle obsession
July 29, 2021, 4:47pm

It’s hot vax summer, Millennials. Like everyone, I’m trying to be upbeat in the face of the constant specter of death. I’m trying to pretend last summer didn’t happen—the one that prompted data researchers to publish findings like “Millennials continue to fuel hard seltzer sales, with no ceiling in sight.” Mostly, I'm just trying to drink my eight glasses of water a day, and not even because I’m thirsty. Everyone seems to tout it as a panacea to total beauty, wellness, and health. 

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Americans bought fifteen billion gallons of bottled water in 2020. We buy bottles of H20 like they’re potions with power-up abilities: alkaline water for our cells, mineral water for our digestion, and approximately 50000 varieties of flavored water for our embattled souls. I feel like a terrible parent if I take my children anywhere without their 32 ounces of ice-cold water. I’m amazed as I watch them stagger off the playground, red-faced and panting, gulping freely from their leak proof, BPA-free personal storage containers. 

Hydration never used to feel this important. I used to survive all day on a single ration of Capri Sun, and maybe a rushed sip of water from the water fountain in the playground or the hallway at school—warm, metallic, and just barely functioning. No wonder drinking water still fills me with a sense of dread, as though it's a duty I must perform. Am I supposed to step in front of my sink eight times, fill a glass to the brim, and reckon with my electrolyte levels for the rest of my life? Do I keep a vacuum-insulated bottle of water at my side forever, religiously taking sips until my cells run like V8 engines of digestion and absorption? 

Millennials have a weird relationship with H20. For the first half of our lives, we never drank it, and then suddenly it was all we drank. In June, as the heat domes began to form over portions of the country, I discovered this was a common experience among my older millennial and younger Gen X peers after I joked on Twitter that our parents didn’t give us water. 

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The replies poured in immediately: “I survived on fruit punch and second-hand smoke,” one user replied.” A friend of mine told me she had never talked about it with anyone, as though it were a secret—how she thought it was just her parents that didn’t give her water. 

Millennials lived in the absolute Golden Era of sugary beverages. Tap water was boring, and besides, our refrigerators were magical portals of sugar water and possibility. We drank in rainbows of Blue Raspberry and Red Dye 40. The Snapple Lady was a celebrity. The Kool-Aid Man had his own Marvel comic run. Even the red dot in the 7-UP logo had a video game that retailed for $49.99. 

“Water-adjacent,” is how Kendra, age 41, described her childhood relationship with water, which she says involved nursing some Hawaiian Punch with “a splash of hose water,” to make it last. (Her grandmother didn’t want the kids coming in and out all day, wasting the air conditioning.) Cody, age 37, described his water intake as “very much flavored,” with the help of Mountain Berry Punch Kool-Aid, iced tea powders, and “of course Crystal Light.”

There was juice. So much juice. Juice from concentrate, juice from corn syrup, Juicy Juice. There was BoKu, juice boxes for adults. There was juice that assured us it was 100 percent juice, and there was juice that made no such promises. There were liquids that we called “juice”—like Hi-C, Hawaiian Punch, and SunnyD—probably because no one wanted to call them what they actually were: chemicals that burned going down, warm and caustic and neon.

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We chugged down 24-ounce AriZona iced teas like we were frat boys pounding Natty Daddys. Coke, Pepsi, and Sprite were the Holy Trinity. Generic store-brand and Shasta were our lesser Gods. We were children. Babies. Shit had a full serving of caffeine. No matter—it was a hallmark of American Motherhood in the 1990s to pass on the burden and lifelong addiction of Diet Coke to the next generation. 

And then there was milk. When Will Ferrell declared milk a bad choice in the 2003 film Anchorman, it was a rallying cry for a generation that had been served too much. Although dairy consumption had been slowly declining since 1970, per capita consumption in 1980 was still a hefty 273 pounds of fluid milk—the same year the budget for a government-subsidized school milk program ballooned to a record $145 million. Milk came with breakfast and lunch. For the most evangelical followers of the National Dairy Council, it even came with dinner. 

What were our parents even doing? 

“For the record, I don’t remember denying you water,” my Boomer-generation father said, when I went straight to the source, asking him what happened. 

I can hear the protests from the older generations. No one had to tell us to drink water when we were thirsty.  And they’re right—each generation has a unique journey with H20, defined as much by politics, pollution, and pop culture as it is our thirst. 

Our parents weren’t scared of sugar; it was steak and butter that freaked them out. Nutritionists who had tried to sound the alarm about the increasing amounts of sugar in the standard American diet had found their work quickly buried. When the United States issued its first dietary guidelines in 1980—the year the first Millennials were born—it declared fats and cholesterol the enemy, which physiologist Ancel Keys had hypothesized were the leading cause of cardiovascular disease. Sugar was only mentioned as bad for your teeth. It wasn’t until 1995, when the infamous food pyramid was introduced, that the government first advised consuming sugar “sparingly.” 

The 80s were also an era of rapidly increasing media saturation and advertising—amplifying the movement toward processed and pre-packaged food that had been underway since after the second world war. This, combined with a shrinking number of water fountains, created a weird bubble where we stopped drinking water. Water fountains were once so prominent in daily view, they became symbols of the Civil Rights Movement. But by the 1980s, the EPA had discovered high levels of lead contaminating the water from public fountains. Great, now our parents had to freak out about water, too.

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Congress swiftly amended the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1986, banning contaminants and the use of lead pipes, but the damage was done—not only to public water fountains, which are about as rare as pay phones nowadays, but to tap water’s reputation. A 2021 study showed that nearly 60 million American distrust the stuff, despite the country having one of the safest public water supplies in the world. Events like the Flint water crisis, where a budget shortfall prompted incompetent officials to switch the city water source to the bacteria-contaminated, lead-filed Flint river, continue to compound our fears. 

At least milk was safe. No one ever believed cow’s milk to be a dietary necessity. Our parents had been indoctrinated into the cult of milk by our grandparents, who had to swallow a surplus of milk and propaganda when dairy production ramped up during World War II. It was also a small liberation for mothers, who could work outside the home for the first time with the convenience of bottle-feeding. 

So when milk consumption began declining in the 1980s, America’s Dairy Farmers were desperate to keep us, unleashing an onslaught of commercials featuring body builders and busty women drinking milk straight from the cartoon, dripping in sweat and sex appeal. The Got Milk campaign leveraged kid-friendly celebrities like The Simpsons and Kermit the Frog to convert us, grinning at us with milk mustaches.

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Selling bottled water was not a new concept; the practice dates at least as far back to the 1800s, when people sought spring water to take for health and ailments. But it was viewed as mostly a niche market, catering to fans of artisanal waters and doomsday preppers. My father used to keep a can of water in our pantry, taking it down as though it were something from Robert Ripley’s grand collection of oddities. “There’s just plain, simple, water in here,” he would show us, marveling.

Little did we know it when we were kids, but the bottled water industry was already growing. Perrier sold three million bottles of water in 1975. Four years later, after People magazine printed that Farrah Fawcett used Perrier water to wash her iconic hair, the number exploded to 200 million. Throughout the 1980s, niche companies like Evian, Poland Spring, and Saint Yorre started becoming big players. Then, in 1994, Pepsi dropped the H-bomb on the soda industry: Hydration. 

The soda industry's entry into the bottled water market was prescient: In 1999, the CDC released alarming statistics on the obesity epidemic. A steady increase in the prevalence of obesity was found in every state and every region, across every demographic. Fuck. Maybe chugging all that sugar was bad.

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You know that movie, A Perfect Storm, where all those weather fronts combine, to the point where it’s George Clooney in his little boat, up to his neck in water? That’s what happened. And besides, we were thirsty: “I didn’t drink water seriously until my twenties,” Kevin, age 34, said. “I can't recall really drinking water or it being such a thing until adulthood,” Christina, age 40, explained.

Today, water is a global multi-billion-dollar industry, surpassing soda, milk, and even beer. The average American consumes 30 gallons of bottled water per year. It’s the number-one beverage choice of Gen Z, ahead of coffee, juice, tea, and all of that sugar we used to drink. Gen Z cites their number one reason for choosing water as “hydration and thirst.” They are miles ahead of where us millennials were at their age: They know how to part their hair, they know how to use emojis, and they know how to drink water.

The marketers have always circled Millennials like vultures, and the way they describe us now, it's as though we never swallowed our weight in Kool-Aid powder. We are a generation that rejects giving soda and juice to our children, preferring “organic” and “clean” choices. We’re the number-one consumer of expensive water bottles, spending an average of $50 per insulated bauble. In 2019, when Coca-Cola stock dropped to the lowest in a decade, pundits snarked that soda is yet another industry Millennials were killing in favor of “kale juice.” 

Pffft, like we would drink kale juice.

They don’t know us. They never did. Maybe we’ve just been thirsty this whole time. After a lifetime of reflecting on the philosophical question of whether the Kool-Aid man is the pitcher or the liquid (he’s the liquid, don’t @ me), we’re ready. It’s time for us to stand in front of our kitchen sinks. Eight times a day. Every day for the rest of our lives. Fill a glass to the brim. Millennials rejoice: We’re finally quenched.