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Sober Times: What’s Behind Gen Z’s Lack of Interest in Booze?

Nathan O’Hagan explores the notable shift away from a culture of excess drinking among today’s younger generations

Photo: PA/Alamy

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As the first month of the year approaches its end, the estimated 175,000 people taking part in ‘Dry January’ will likely be counting the days to their first pint or glass of wine, as they crawl over the finish line at the completion of their month of self-imposed abstinence. 

For most taking part, Dry January is a temporary measure, a way to reset, to give their body a rest after the excesses of the festive season, as well as to claw back some of the money spent during Christmas and New Year.

But for an increasing number of people, sobriety has become the norm – marking a notable shift from a culture of excess drinking that has long been seen as a defining characteristic in this country.

This shift is a largely generational one. While levels of alcohol consumption among older demographics remains steady, larger numbers of young people than ever are embracing a sober lifestyle or at the very least a ‘sober curious’ one. 

And while this trend has been gradual for a few years, research by The Portman Group – an industry body encouraging responsible drinking – suggests it has greatly accelerated in the last year.  In 2020, 25% of young people surveyed described themselves as non-drinkers. By the end of last year, that figure had risen to 39%, with 12% of that increase coming in the last 12 months. 

“The consistent decline in young people drinking, and drinking at risky levels, is one of the few public health success stories over the past couple decades,” according to Dr Katherine Severi, chief executive of the Institute of Alcohol Studies. Crucially, she says “this has been reflected in reductions in harm, with fewer and fewer young people being hospitalised or referred to treatment services due to alcohol”.

When the number of young people who describe themselves as only occasional drinkers, and those who consume low-alcohol and alcohol-free alternatives, is factored in this figure increases to 44%. The Portman Group’s findings are echoed by other bodies and charities Alcohol Change UK and Drinkaware.

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The factors leading to any social trend are always multifaceted, but a study last year by the Institute of Alcohol Studies examined some of the reasons why younger people are drinking less.

It found that the most significant explanation was an increased awareness of alcohol-related risk, including both long-term health risks and more short-term consequences such as the embarrassment of acting drunk in public and potential injury from accidents, drink-driving and violence.

The second most significant factor it found was a general change in youth culture, as well as in how and where people socialise. Combined with legislation reducing the opportunity for younger people to have sneaky pints in their local with a landlord turning a blind eye, it seems drinking is simply no longer seen as cool or rebellious.

“You’ve not got the people trying to be like ‘oh, I’m breaking the rules I’m doing something I shouldn’t’, trying to get the attention,” one teenager told the study.

Like just about everything else my generation thought was cool, it seems getting pissed in the car park of a local shopping centre on a bottle of Malibu purchased from a dodgy off licence is now seen as a bit lame. Who knew? 

I, like many, witnessed a fluctuating relationship with alcohol among my own (admittedly far older) friendship group during and since the pandemic. Many of us sought some level of solace in increased drinking during the early days of lockdown. But, as this wore on, a growing awareness of health-related issues in general saw many people taking up more exercise when restrictions were lifted – and, as a result drinking less.

Melissa Oldham, a senior research fellow at University College London, who has written extensively on the subject, says “alongside increases in alcohol consumption amongst those drinking at riskier levels, we also saw an uptick in motivation to reduce consumption” during the pandemic. “So you may be right when you say reflection in lockdown, and possibly concerns more generally about health, may have made people think about drinking a bit less.” 

Lockdown also saw people having to use modern technology to stay connected, and Drinkaware suggests that the rise in the use of this kind of tech has meant younger teens in particular are spending more time socialising online, rather than meeting up to engage in the ‘park bench’ type drinking that defined my youth.  


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The third most significant factor the study found was economic. Although one of the few remaining aspects of the drinking culture of my generation appears to be the tried-and-trusted method of swiping some booze from a parent’s supply, the increased cost of alcohol is frequently referenced as a reason from the decrease. Beyond the face-value cost of drinking, the same study found a further element to economic motivations. 

Of the young people surveyed, many alluded to the impact that drinking, and the associated after-effects like hangovers and mental health impact, have on their ability to achieve educationally and in the workplace.

According to one young man participating, “we’re more worried about our futures than anyone so far – we don’t have the time or the privilege to waste getting drunk” – suggesting that the contemporary economic climate means Gen Zers see their window of opportunity as an increasingly narrow one, and that the impact of excessive alcohol consumption reduces their ability to maximise those opportunities.  

Nobody is suggesting weekend scenes of mass drunkenness in our city centres are soon to become a thing of the past, and only time will tell if this growing trend leads in the long term to a healthier, more balanced, relationship with alcohol – or whether this generation turns out to be an outlier or sets the tone for future generations.

“There are still significant numbers of young people who engage in risky, heavy episodic ‘binge drinking’,” Dr Severi says. “Perceived social norms around alcohol use, such as that it should be a normal and positive part of life, slow any progress made.

“The UK Government should adopt the World Health Organisation’s recommendation and comprehensively restrict alcohol marketing, to protect those in recovery and support the positive trend of a decline in young people drinking.”

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