A complex combination of outside pressures and information overload is driving young people to snub alcohol, far more than generations before them.
By Megan Carnegie - September 22, 2022
As a teenager, Lola’s drinking went in cycles. There would be a night of heavy drinking, then then a regretful day spent piecing the previous evening together. Next, a period of sobriety, before the next big night out. But when the pandemic hit, Lola moved back in with her parents in London, and her drinking came to an abrupt halt. Lockdown, she says, presented her with an opportunity to step back from ingrained habits and address her anxiety issues.
Now, the 22-year-old student is enjoying a different relationship with alcohol. She recently tried clubbing sober, and although she still drinks, it’s much less frequent. “I’m not anti-drinking – I just don’t like getting drunk or feeling ill the next morning,” says Lola. “I like going home safely and remembering the people I met, so sober nights work well for me.”
Lola isn’t an anomaly among her friends – she says all have been drinking less since the pandemic, and she feels no judgement from her peers when not drinking. “Friends who haven’t limited their drinking as much as me think it’s cool when people go out sober,” she explains. “It’s a you-do-you mentality where people are respectful of your choices, whether you’re protecting your mental health, or just don’t fancy it.”
Experimenting with alcohol – and drinking to excess – has long been seen as a rite of passage into adulthood, at least in Western cultures. From an early age, often before the legal age, alcohol is embraced as a social lubricant, a way to have fun, make friends and escape day-to-day realities. Few professional or social events are without some form of alcohol.
But Gen Zers are taking it slow as they enter adulthood, either by not drinking at all, or drinking less often and in less quantity than older generations. The UK’s largest recent study of drinking behaviours showed in 2019, 16-to-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. Among US adults, Gallup showed those aged 35 to 54 are most likely to drink alcohol (70%), compared to Gen Zers (60%) and Boomers (52%), while a study from 2020 found that the portion of college-age Americans who are teetotal has risen from 20% to 28% in a decade. Of those who do drink, the largest portion of young Europeans (defined as over the legal drinking age up to 39) drinks once a month (27%), while in the US, the biggest group drink once a week (25%).