A third of pub visits are now alcohol-free, and who’s supposedly leading this movement? Well, according to the UK’s largest recent study of drinking behaviours, it’s Gen Z. This 2019 study showed that 16-25 year-olds were the most likely to be teetotal, with 26% not drinking, compared to the least likely generation (55-to-74-year-olds), 15% of whom didn’t drink.
While the internet, and major publications, have been quick to brand this age bracket as the new “sober generation”, the reality is that drinking is a far more nuanced issue to us Gen-Zers. Bloomberg, for example, opened their article about the so-called Gen Z sobriety trend with this declarative: “The pub is an entrenched part of British culture. Gen Z isn’t sure it wants any part of it”. They then go on to claim that Gen Z is “rejecting boozy British culture”. Wow, what a groundbreaking statement. Bloomberg has cracked it! Gen Z hates the pub and hates British culture! I hope you picked up on my blatant sarcasm here, because honestly, what? It’s genuinely so lazy to chalk Gen Z’s statistical decrease in drinking up to an absolute rejection of British drinking culture. Just because we don’t glorify binge drinking (we’ve all seen Skins...), doesn’t mean that we’ve sworn off the bottle for good. Has nobody considered that some of us might just be “sober curious” not just sober? Or that some of us might just practice living a balanced lifestyle regardless of identifying labels? You don’t have to be teetotal to want to order a diet coke at the pub...you might just feel like a diet coke. Revolutionary concept, no?
So, as an actual member of the Gen Z community (2001 babies rise up), I’m gonna add some colour to what major publications looking for a ‘clickbait headline’ are portraying as a black and white issue. Sorry guys, it’s not as simple as putting everyone born after the millennium in the the teetotal box. So, let’s get into it.
Are Gen Z actually drinking less?
Well, yeah. We are. But not in a “fuck alcohol” kind of way...more in a, we don’t think that alcohol is the be all and end all when it comes to socialising, kind of way. Plus, we care about other things now aside from getting fucked up. I’ll get into that in the next paragraph. For now let’s get into the stats, ‘cos who doesn’t love numbers?
Ok, so across most high income western countries (plus Australia and New Zealand), there has been a remarkable decline in youth drinking. In the US, a study by Gallup showed that those aged 35 to 54 are most likely to drink alcohol (70%), compared to Gen Zers (60%) and a study from 2020 found that the portion of college-age Americans who are teetotal has risen from 20% to 28% in a decade. Similarly, in New Zealand, rates of binge drinking have dropped by more than half between 2001 and 2012, and have continued to drop since. As a response, the non-alcoholic beverages market has grown by over 506% since 2015, and only seems to be expanding further.
So, it’s official: youth drinking in highly developed countries really is dropping.
But it’s not like youth drinking has dropped to 0 (as some publications would have you believe), its just fallen. And since I last checked, rates of alcohol consumption in developed Western countries were stupidly high before this trend came into force. I mean, think back to the glorified binge drinking from idolised rock ‘n rollers drinking destroying hotel rooms and getting away wth it, to movies like Todd Phillips’ ‘The Hangover’ smashing box office records and romanticising 3 day drinking benders... it’s safe to say that popular culture was obsessed with alcohol, and by extension, so too were the people that consumed said media. I’m not out here to judge, but it definitely seems to me as if we were due a lil’ reduction in our alcohol consumption. Don’t you agree?
So my question is, why are boomers and millennials on the internet and in major publications, sensationalising the so-called sobriety of Gen Z? Especially since, in reality, the only thing that is happening is that our generation is slightly reducing our consumption from huge binge drinking levels, to more balanced and moderate ones. This false sensationalism and clickbait-y headlines simply works to shame our generation for making healthy choices, which is pretty counter-intuitive.
Why are Gen Z drinking less?
Pinning the supposed ‘downfall of drinking’ on just one factor is impossible; the reasons why Gen Z are shying away from alcohol are invariably multifaceted. That being said, recent research surrounding this trend has identified four key themes: financial pressures, health and wellness, shifting priorities, and the growth of the no & low alcohol market. As much as I think broad brushstroke demographic studies tend to miss the mark, I actually think that these are super accurate. Let’s get into it
1. Financial pressures
There’s no way to sugar coat this one: we’re broke. Like, broke broke. Dreams of owning a house? Unrealistic. Employed? Barely. Cost of living? Crisis. It’s not pretty. Let me throw some stats at you to illustrate my point. Ok so, this year, when Deloitte asked almost 15,000 Gen Zers around the world about their most pressing concern, they cited the cost of living as their top worry (29%), ranking higher than climate change, mental health and sexual harassment. What’s more, almost half said that they live pay-check to pay-check, and additionally, to make ends meet, 43% have taken on either a part- or full-time job in addition to their primary job – 10% higher than millennials. Invariably, the way that we have to budget is different. And since we last checked, alcohol is fucking expensive. I don’t know about you, but I can’t rest easy throwing my money on 12 quid G&T’s.
2. Health and wellness
According to a report by the Food Institute in 2022, Gen Zers stated that improving health (47%), managing weight (38%), reducing risk of disease (25%) and avoiding a hangover (23%) were all key factors shaping their decision not to drink. Yeah, that seems about right. But to be honest, I think it’s deeper than that. We’ve grown up with a heightened awareness of the negative side effects of alcohol abuse, rather than blindly witnessing just the glory days of binge drinking. Whilst the 90s and early 2000s saw a huge boom in drinking, we’ve come into consciousness when large scale research into the downsides of alcohol has gained large scale public awareness, and have just modified our drinking habits accordingly. On top of this, both physical and mental health and wellness are undeniably a huge priority for us Gen Zers. In fact, over half of Gen Zers work out, compared to just 45% of other generations, according to a recent survey from Becker’s Hospital Review. They also take personalised supplements and attend regular therapy sessions at higher rates than millennials, Gen Xers and boomers combined. Slay. It is no surprise, as such, that many health conscious youngsters have decided to forego the booze altogether. What can I say, it’s what #ThatGirl does, so we’re going to do it too!
3. Shifting priorities
This one kind of incorporates both of the factors I’ve just mentioned... ‘cos basically, alcohol isn’t our number 1 priority any more. We’ve got a whole bunch of other shit going on. Like, the climate and cost of living crises? I mean, c’mon, we’re not called the activist generation for nothing. Plus, we’re out here saving every penny just so we can maybe potentially one day cop ourselves a house. As much as we’d love to kick back and relax, us GenZers have a whole bunch of shit to worry, care and save about. Alcohol doesn’t make the cut anymore, sorry.
4. Growth of the no & low alcohol industry
What came first: the decline in youth drinking or the growth of the no & low alcohol industry? A real chicken and the egg situation here. Tbh it’s probs a bit of both. It’s undeniable, having a huge range of alcohol alternatives invariably makes being sober curious an easier endeavour. ‘Cos, who wants to drink a cup of tea at the pub? Um. Not me. I’ll have a NOgroni (negroni minus the hangover, obvs), please and thank you.
Has alcohol lost its cool?
Whilst I don’t think its reasonable to assume that Gen Z are the new “sober generation”, I do think it’s fair to say that binge drinking has lost its cool. In fact, I would go so far as to say that alcohol has gone from “cool” to “complicated”.
Looking back at the popular culture of recent decades, all the way up until the early 2000s, it’s easy to see that drinking to excess was positively glorified. One only has to watch Skins or listen to any Ke$ha song to ascertain this trend. In contrast, Gen Z’s idols are increasingly turning away from any motley crue-esque aesthetic with artists like Central Cee rapping lyrics like “I don't party”, and some the world’s most famous models, such as Bella Hadid, swearing off the booze for good - a radical departure from the “cocaine Kate” standard of party-hard supermodels in the 90s. Partying hard and abusing alcohol is no longer the golden ticket to cool social status. In fact, I would argue that it’s quite the opposite. From my own experience, at least, I watched the cringe, wild ‘freshers initiation’ games and mildly oppressive boozy uni culture be all but rejected by large swathes of my peers; a trend that was totally unexpected to a baby-faced fresher me. By my final year, sober club nights and quiet pub trips were the utter norm, and nobody was made to feel like a loser for their sober-curious choices. On top of this, the minority who did take their drinking a lil’ too far were treated more with concern and sympathy than blind worship. Like, damn we can finally all admit that drinking to the point of having your stomach pumped or pissing on your (shared) dorm room floor isn’t totally awesome, it’s just problematic and jarring for those around you. Finally.
However, whilst binge drinking is no longer cool, this doesn’t mean that engaging in hedonistic behaviours is no longer considered to be a ‘rite of passage’ for younger generations. It’s just that the way Gen Z define hedonism is a lil’ different to generations before. Whilst traditionally the word hedonism has been synonymous with over-indulgence, recklessness, self-destructive practices and risk, I would argue that Gen-Z’s notion is quite the opposite. A recent study by One Minute to Midnight (https://www.oneminutetomidnight.life/gen-z) found that Gen Z are most likely to consider hedonistic acts to be those that involve self-care or those that bring joy. I totally agree with this. To me, hedonistic indulgence is a slutty lil’ recharge day. I’m talking: an ‘everything shower’, radical self care, treating myself to some good food and a whole lot of not moving. In my mind, Gen Z’s love of wellness, staying in and looking after number 1 (ourselves, ofc) might stem in part from a hangover of the pandemic, but mainly it stems from a generational culture that priorities wellness and authentic pleasure. It only takes a second to scroll through the #slowlife hashtag on TikTok to see this trend in action.
Don’t get me wrong, we still go out, we still go have a cheeky pint at the pub, and you better believe that we still go out for dins and drinks...but equally, we drink our greens, go for hot girl walks and eat intuitively the next day. Gen Z are the CEO’s of balance. We have grown up witnessing the paradigm shift from risky drug and alcohol benders, to Gwyneth Paltrow eating disorder-esque toxic wellness...and now the pendulum has settled somewhere in the middle. Fuck radical extremes. Whilst millennials had the temple of party girl icons Lohan and Paris to worship, or the clean extremes like Paltrow and Posh Spice, we’re out here idolising balanced baddies like Taylor Swift who’s happy af to go straight home to the cats (Meredith and Olivia, obvs) after an awards ceremony, but equally still hosts huge 4th of July blowouts with her start-studded sisterhood (invite me). Hot take: I think that one of the main reasons that the Weeknd’s show ‘The Idol’ flopped so damn hard is because nobody romanticises substance abuse anymore. That, and the fact that the Weeknd can’t act to save his life. Sorry, not sorry.
So, is alcohol in its flop era?
Well, alcohol’s still kicking around, but its defo having a bit of a popularity crisis. Let me explain this in the most Gen Z way I can think of: think of it as a Regina George dethroning situ. She no longer rules the school, but equally she’s not eating her lunch in the loos. Everyone still fucks with alcohol, but in a more sober-curious, balanced kind of way.