By philipedwards, Dec 28 2018 03:51PM
December 28, 2018
The shift is undeniable: young people are drinking less. Drinks companies first noticed the trend a decade ago, and for years newspapers have commented on the departure from the drinking habits of the past.
“Sober is the new drunk: why millennials are ditching bar crawls for juice crawls,” and “Is drinking becoming as socially unacceptable as smoking?” The Guardian opined. “Millennials shunning alcohol as getting drunk is no longer cool,” The Telegraph declared. With the rise in “juice bars”, sober day raves, and “wellness” culture, the shift among youth to view drunkenness as an unfashionable bad habit of previous generations can be seen everywhere.
Now researchers have quantified just how much young people in Britain have cut back on drinking, putting hard numbers to the noticeable trends. A study published in the journal BMC Public Health earlier this year, using data from nearly 1,000 people aged 16 to 24 from the Office of National Statistics in the UK, found that young people are indeed drinking less.
The key findings tell a nuanced story:
- In 2015, 29% of people aged 16 to 24 identified as non-drinkers (including ex drinkers and “lifetime abstainers”), up from 18% in 2005.
- The percentage of young people identifying as “lifetime abstainers” nearly doubled over a decade, jumping from 9% in 2005 to 17% in 2015.
- Among those who do drink, those who said they hadn’t consumed any alcohol for the past week had increased to 50% in 2015, up from 35% in 2005.
- Young people have also cut down on “binge drinking”, or consuming twice the recommended daily limit: 27% admitted to binge drinking on the heaviest day of the year in 2005, compared to 18% in 2015.
- Interestingly, the percentage of ex-drinkers among young people has not changed: 2% of people aged 16 to 24 said they used to drink but no longer do in 2005 and in 2015.
It’s indisputable: young people are drinking less. But why?
Pundits and social commentators have proposed a variety of theories: health consciousness and the “wellness” craze; tightened budgets due to the high cost of living; career goals and long working hours; rebellion against the lifestyle choices of previous generations. Even “selfie obsession” and the pressure to look pristine on social media at all times has been floated as a reason for sobriety among Millennials.
But while there are no shortage of theories, or colourful explanations from individual non-drinkers, very little is known about why young people at the population level are drinking less.
Intriguingly, the BMC Public Health study found that across all subgroups, young people have cut back on alcohol, including those who are overweight or obese, eat only zero to two portions of fruit and veg per day, or who have mental health problems – all subgroups that traditionally were thought to drink more, not less. So if people who are obese or eat an unhealthy diet are also drinking less, clearly health consciousness cannot be the only explanation for why young people are increasingly identifying as tee-total or light drinkers.
Another study published this year in the journal Drug and Alcohol Review came to the same conclusion: the evidence clearly shows that young people are drinking less, but for now we just don’t know why.
Convincing ideas about the influence of health fads or social media are all well and good, but at this stage, they are purely hypothetical. “Future research into the issue of falling prevalence rates of youth drinking should focus on possible explanatory factors at the population level rather than at the individual level,” the authors write in the journal Drug and Alcohol Review. Moreover, the study pours cold water on the idea that “selfie” obsession and social media are driving the trend to sobriety: “We found no evidence in support of the widespread assumption that the digital revolution has been of importance,” they state.
Both studies come to the same conclusion: we need to understand why young people are drinking less, rather than making assumptions, so we can then use that knowledge to encourage lower drinking levels in older generations.
Because while excessive drinking is on the decline among young people, it appears to be on the rise in older people. According to the Office of National Statistics, there were 5,208 deaths in people over the age of 50 that could be wholly attributed to alcohol, compared to 3,582 deaths in that age group in 2001 – an increase of 45%. If we knew more about what is driving young people to cut back, we could find ways to successfully encourage older people to do the same of their own volition, instead of imposing punitive taxes or other so-called “nanny state” tactics.
For the time being, it appears that young people will continue to drink less alcohol than their elders, for whatever reason.
If they were offered an alternative to alcohol that came with all the benefits of relaxation and socialising, without the downsides of hangovers, memory loss or health risks, would Millennials embrace it? And what can the drinks industry do to support this trend to consume healthier products, and to maintain its wallet share among Millennials?
1. Fat et al, 2018. “Investigating the growing trend of non- drinking among young people; analysis of repeated cross-sectional surveys in England 2005–2015.” BMC Public Health, 18:1090. doi.org/10.1186/s12889-018-5995-3
2. Pape et al, 2018. “Adolescents drink less: How, who and why? A review of the recent research literature.” Drug and Alcohol Review, 37 Suppl 1:S98-S114. doi: 10.1111/dar.12695.
Available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29573020
3. “Alcohol-specific deaths in the UK: registered in 2016,” Office of National Statistics, 2016.