Gen Z for zero tolerance: why British youth are turning off booze | alcohol

It appears that young people are not drinking alcohol like they used to. And when I say “they”, I probably mean “we”. According to the alcohol education charity Drinkaware, after the surge of alcohol consumption during lockdown, there has been a general decline in drinking: older people are still most likely to drink, while those least likely to drink are aged 16 to 24, with 26% of that age group fully teetotal.

This trend for British youth shunning alcohol has been bubbling away for some time, but more than a quarter of young people teetotal? While I in no way seek to glorify heavy drinking, or diminish the tragic effects of alcoholism, that is a lot of sober youth.

When I was young, I, and most people I knew, might as well have taken a sleeping bag to the pub. Nor is this (wholly) about disgusting, inebriated journalists who were lucky cameraphones had not been invented. In my glory days (recollections may vary), the Great British piss-up – sticky, sudsy glasses; cigarette ash-strewn tables; the desperate pleas of a landlord calling “Last orders” – was an unofficial Olympic event.

Now I read that no alcohol is consumed during 29% of pub visits and 37% of restaurant meals, and leading brewers are banking on non-alcoholic lagers. It is the dawning of the new temperance.

Heavy drinking sessions down the pub were once the norm for previous generations. Photograph: Everynight Images/Alamy

Perhaps this “sober youth” thing is overstated: last month’s Glastonbury crowds looked fueled by rather more than good vibes and bubble tea. And while reality shows such as love island now strictly restrict alcohol compared with the sozzled early days of Big Brotherthis seems less about what most participants want than a broadcasting duty of care.

A “high” does not have to be booze-related anyway: a 2015 study found a spike in young people using ecstasy and LSD and, overall, those in this age group were the most likely to use drugs.

Still, a trend for abstinence is interesting – and there could be many explanations. Such as, young people are priggish control freaks who wouldn’t know a good time if it bit them on the hipster rucksack (the go-to rationale for all embittered oldies, but unlikely).

They are smarter, more mature, less repressed than previous generations (they are, after all, having sex without alcohol). They are classy: preferring the European approach to drinking. They are skint: at university, the traditional training camp for lifestyle drinking, they were cowed by student debt, which they are now paying off. Put like that, affording a round would be a miracle.

Or maybe this cohort just prefers to mold their own consumer and hedonist identity rather than following in the footsteps of, say, the 1990s lads and ladettes: shunning alcohol just as, with the rise of veganism, they turned powerfully against meat.

Or could there be a sadder, darker gender aspect to this: sober women feeling a little safer, less vulnerable to predators; switched-on men responding to that? There has certainly been a thudding puritanical agenda against female drinkers over the years.

Similarly, young working-class boozers living it up in Magaluf were routinely firing, while the malbec-quaffing, middle-aged, middle-class, Ocado wine-cellar brigade were deemed aspirational, until they were exposed as hardened stealth boozers.

Reality TV shows such as Love Island now closely monitor the consumption of alcohol by contestants
Reality TV shows such as Love Island now closely monitor the consumption of alcohol by contestants. Photograph: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

Maybe some of these factors fed this youth mass detachment from alcohol. Either that or young people just think drinking is naff, dated, and (whisper it) pathetic. I remember 1960s and 1970s footage of stoned hippies putting me off smoking dope: it wasn’t the drugs, it was the hair.

Have tanked-up elders grossed out new generations and put them off drinking? Face it, even without the serious consequences – disease, violence, depression, death – modern alcohol history isn’t pretty. Lairy yuppies with bottled beers with limes stuck in the top. Camden Town Britpoppers face-down in ashtrays. Maybe it just took one “overrefreshed” uncle strutting his unfunky stuff to Wet Leg at a wedding. Who could blame young people for recoiling and thinking: “It’s up to us to save the human race”?

Certainly, there isn’t the same hard-drinking peer pressure these days. That thing of “Never trust a bastard who doesn’t drink” seems to have fallen away, whereas, once, it was akin to a holy creed; ethanol-sodden Bible scripture. Which does not mean that Britons don’t still have a bizarre, muddled, tortured relationship with alcohol.

Perhaps because it is not “othered”, like class A drugs, you are prevailed upon to have a definite stance (in or out), as you wouldn’t with something such as cocaine. What 26% of the younger generation could be saying is: no drama, we are actually just not that interested.

At this point, I feel I should stick up for past pissed generations. For those fortunate enough not to get caught in the claws of alcoholism, booze culture was not all darkness, or even all about sex. It was also about socializing, laughing, bonding, not taking yourself too seriously.

All things you can do sober, but that doesn’t alter the fact we did it insanely drunk. One thing that is often overlooked about the 1990s lad and ladette culture I pathetically sloshed about in was how interlaced the sexes were on a friendship level: for a while back there, the sense of equality and camaraderie felt fresh and strong.

As it is, I barely drink these days. I could no longer hack the hangovers: as you age, they escalate from bad to terrible to “Chernobyl”. For some, the bar “shuts” whether we like it or not. Sober youth, be warned, you could be wasting your best recovery years.

In fact, I have noticed a fair few big drinkers of my acquaintance turning teetotal. Might this work in reverse: alcohol-free generation Z hitting the wine boxes in middle age? I’m not judging. I just don’t envy you the hangovers.

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