Remember being in your 20s, binge-drinking every weekend with your mates, livers be damned? Well, according to new research, those pastimes have long since been shunned by young people, who are opting to abstain from alcohol more and more.
A study by University College London has found that 29% of people aged 16-24 class themselves as ‘non-drinkers’ in 2015, increasing from 18% ten years previously. With a large proportion of these coming from ‘lifetime abstainers’, whom have increased from 9% to 17%, the research shows that cultural attitudes towards alcohol are changing drastically.
In fact, never mind the Geordie Shore influence, only 28% of young people actually binge drink anymore. While in 2005, 43% said they drank harmful amounts of alcohol, this drastic reduction to less than 30% in 2015 was prevalent ‘across a broad range of groups’.
‘Increases in non-drinking among young people were found across a broad range of groups,’ said leader author of the study, Dr Linda Ng Fat, ‘including those living in northern or southern regions of England, among the white population, those in full-time education, in employment and across all social classes and healthier groups.
‘The increase in young people who choose not to drink alcohol suggests that this behaviour maybe becoming more acceptable, whereas risky behaviours such as binge drinking may be becoming less normalised.’
But when and HOW did this happen? When did all of the young people stop drinking and start… what do you even do without alcohol at a social event? It’s baffling to older generations, whose weeknight routine regularly includes a glass of wine.
So, we’ve decided to delve into the diaries of the 20-somethings and 30-somethings to find out exactly how these alternate drinking habits really change their life. Are they healthier? But more importantly, are they actually having fun?
Beth*, 24, says she doesn’t drink much, if at all. She used to drink heavily, but stopped drinking entirely after she blacked out and was raped during a night out at university.
Monday: I have a hectic week of socialising ahead, I’m celebrating the end of my masters degree and starting a new job, plus visiting a friend for a girls’ night in. I’m already preparing my excuses in my head for why I’m not drinking. My close friends are very accepting of how little I drink, they’re not massive drinkers anyway unless it’s a big night out. On that occasion, they love to take advantage of it knowing I’ll be there to look after them as the resident sober one. But even though they’re not big drinkers, I still always feel like I need a reason to be sober. Sometimes it’s the truth, sometimes it’s a lie.
Total units: 0
Tuesday: Prepping my excuses for a week ahead, I decide to drive to most of the social events I’m invited to so I have a legitimate reason not to drink. I know my own reasons are legitimate, but it’s not easy to explain a heavy topic when everyone just wants to have fun.
I stopped drinking heavily during a girls’ trip to Malia at 18, I saw so many people vomiting and lying alone in the street, it began to seem really dangerous. One of my friends threw up in her sleep and if I hadn’t of been sober enough to wake up and realise, I hate to think what would’ve happened.
After that I would still drink when I went out but I knew my limits. Then, in university I decided to let loose and did some shots with my flat mates, we were at home so I felt safe. However, I blacked out and woke up to realise I’d been raped. I know none of it was my fault regardless of drinking, but I’ve been afraid of getting drunk ever since.
I don’t want to let that fear ruin my enjoyment of life, so I limit when I drink and how much depending on how I feel that week but I’ve found that whenever I do choose to let go and drink, I have a bad night, so that fear of drinking is always reinforced.
Total units: 0
Wednesday: I’m at my friend Chelsea’s* tonight for a pamper night, they open the wine immediately. I tell them I’m driving, but my other friends are too and they will at least have one glass, so I’m not really convincing anyone.
Total units: 0
Thursday: I wake up feeling refreshed, I’m glad I didn’t drink last night, even though I was tempted. I’ve noticed that when I do drink, I tend to feel demotivated and anxious for days afterwards. I overthink more than usual, I don’t feel as energized or as healthy after exercising.
Drinking for me means making the decision to have or not have control over the actions of others, so I see not drinking as a way to protect myself, and ergo my mental health. Knowing I’ll feel safe, and I won’t spend days feeling down after a night out, avoiding alcohol for me is as good for my mental health as it is physical.
Total units: 0
Friday: I’m celebrating a family friend’s 30th wedding anniversary tonight, so I know there’ll be a lot of questions about why I’m not drinking. When I arrive at their home for pre-drinks, everyone is already tipsy, my family friend asks the inevitable when I’m only drinking water so I tell him I’m dehydrated. At the restaurant, the table is full of wine and champagne, so I get one glass of pink champagne and nurse it the entire night. One of my uncles makes a joke about it, but I laugh it off and drink water the rest of the night.
At the end of the night, the restaurant owner came to the table and asked us all what we wanted to drink one by one. He wouldn’t take no for an answer, off anyone, so I order a Baileys and then give it to my dad. He’s fine with that.
Total units: 1
Saturday: I’ve gathered all of my friends together to celebrate the end of my masters, I want them to have a good time, but as the host if I’m not drinking I know others might hold back. That’s the one of the awkward things about not drinking, if you host anything you have to make it clear that you want other people to drink as much as they want, but when you’re not it’s always a weird situation.
I decide to have one cocktail with dinner, and when we get to the next bar my friend is asking me what I want off the drinks menu. She wants to buy me a drink but I’m driving home (purposefully) so I tell her I’ll just have a coke. She knows why I don’t drink so she doesn’t judge, but it’s one of the few occasions I wish I could let loose and drink without fear.
Total units: 1
Sunday: My family decides to go for a roast dinner, so naturally there’s wine being ordered as soon as we sit down. The generational gap is hilarious. My dad has a wine club that involves him and his mates getting together to drink every Wednesday, whereas me and my sister – who's 21 - won’t even have one glass at family dinner. They’re used to us not drinking no one questions it - thank goodness. I’m sick of the excuses this week.
Total units: 0
Claire, 35, doesn't go on as many big nights out as she used to - and feels like she probably binge drinks far less as a result. But she's aware that as someone who drinks most nights she definitely needs to cut down - and she's always shocked by how quickly her weekly units add up.
Monday: I go to the gym after work (essentially to sweat out the last bit of booze from the weekend) and then don’t get home for dinner until nearly 9pm. I’m really thirsty and dehydrated from the gym, so glug a couple of glasses of water - the last thing I want to do is drink. But I do treat myself to a cup of tea when i’m watching TV. I feel insanely smug and virtuous about my Dry Monday, even though having a glass of wine I didn’t really want out of habit would have been utterly pointless.
Despite a good start, I'm quite nervous about laying out how much I drink this week - I know I drink too much and my husband and I keep taking it in turns to wring our hands and say that we should try to cut down more, but our good intentions never seem to go very far. I’m definitely better at cutting out that ‘just one’ glass of wine when I get home after work than I used to be. But that definitely doesn’t make up for the 3-4 times a week I go out after work, or for dinner or drinks, and go over my daily recommended intake (incidentally, who even sticks to those, they’re impossible?).
Total Units: 0
Tuesday: My friend is coming round for dinner. I WhatsApp her beforehand to specifically suggest that we share one bottle of wine and that’s it, because we’re both a fan of the ‘just one more’ bad idea drink at the end of the night. She’s bringing a bottle of red over, and I know we’ve got more in the cupboard but I resolve not to open a second bottle. On my way home I do, however, remember that I have a miniature bottle of gin and a miniature can of tonic in my knicker drawer (sounds weird, I had them hanging around so stashed them in there when I was tidying up.. they’ve been there six months now). I decide that we could share them as an aperitif with some olives while I’m making dinner - which is all very civilised and doesn’t even count as drinking, right?
When my friend arrives, she’s bought a chilled bottle of tonic and full bottle of gin along with the wine. Oh. We have a large one each before dinner then share the bottle of red which is… not as bad as it could have been???
On my way to bed, I spend a good 15 minutes staring in the mirror, trying to work out if I'm getting jowels. Booze is definitely my only ‘bad thing’ - I exercise regularly, I eat well, I don’t smoke and I don’t take drugs. But as a result, alcohol feels like the only leaver I have to pull if I want to look better. Sadly I suspect if anything was to make me cut down on how much I drink, it would be vanity rather than health concerns.
Total units: 7.3
Wednesday: Going to a gig with my husband, and I’m running late for dinner beforehand, so he orders me a cheeseburger and a glass of wine, which I happily glug down. I get another glass of wine to drink during the first half of the gig, and he buys me another one in the interval while i’m in the endless queue for the lady’s toilets. I resist the urge to suggest we go for ‘just one more’ on the way home, because I am a steely resolve/it’s 10.30 and I’m actually really knackered.
Total units: 6.3
Thursday: I go to get my hair cut on the way home from work. I’d made a half-hearted suggestion to meet a friend who lives near me on the way back, but am secretly relieved when she cancels. My plan is to go straight home, make some pasta and do some work in bed. But my haircut looks really nice and I’m hit by a sudden panic that I’m wasting my life and should be doing more exciting things with my new hair/Thursday night.
Instead I text my husband and my sister in law, who are in the pub and arrange to meet them for Turkish food. I realise they’re both quite hammered when I turn up - it feels quite unusual being the most sober person in the room. We share a bottle of red wine, which is just enough for me to feel like a fancy one more glass, but they’re both swaying a bit, so I bite my lip and order an Uber home instead. I’m such a paragon of virtue.
Friday: It’s been a full-on week and I’m knackered. My plan to head straight home for an early night gets railroaded when our close friends, who live around the corner from us and are moving tomorrow, have an unexpected child-free night (grandparents to the rescue!). We’ve been talking about the four of us going out locally for a year, but work and children keep getting in the way, and this is our last chance.
Fortunately, they’ve both got a cold and have to be up early in the morning to finish packing. We still manage a couple of glasses of wine each in the pub, a bottle of wine over dinner, and one more in the pub afterwards. I don’t feel too trashed when I get home, but I definitely feel it in the morning. Ouch.
That said, I’d been expecting the night to tip into insanity, and I’ve realised how much I kind of let that sort of big night out ‘happen’ around me. If I really can’t face it I won’t go at all, but i make no attempt to control the situation once I’m there. I’d love to be that person who switches to water after a couple of drinks and heads home at a sensible hour - how do you do that???
Saturday: Feeling really tired and grumpy - go to a yoga class to try and sort myself out, which sort-of works although I leave feeling really shaky and out of it. Afterwards, we’ve agreed to meet our friends for lunch while they wait for their letting agent to do an inspection of their house. At this point, I should definitely switch to fizzy water, but I order wine along with my friend.
At the end of the meal my husband orders a coffee and my friend goes for an espresso martini, so I split the difference with another (small) glass of wine. My husband raises his eyebrows, which I pretend not to see. Feel amazing for about 20 minutes, while i consider how decadent and amazing daytime drinking is, then start to crash and have to have a little afternoon nap. Wake up a couple of hours later feeling out of sorts and annoyed with myself.
Sunday: Feel like i’m getting a cold and can’t face the gym, so spend the day mooching round the house and doing personal admin. I feel like I’ve earned the glass of wine I pour myself in front of the TV before dinner, but realise I’ve gulped it in 10 minutes flat. Resist the urge to get up and pour myself a second before I go to eat dinner - this is 100% progress, right?
So what did the experts have to say about our two sets of very different drinkers? Dr John Larsen, Director of Evidence and Impact at Drinkaware:
'As illustrated by Beth’s and Claire’s diaries, it can be really hard to break the habit of regular drinking – especially when there is pressure from friends and family to be drinking as part of social occasions. A great way to break the habit, and to share with your friends that you are not drinking today, is to explain that you are taking a Drink Free Day. That doesn’t mean that you can’t take part in the fun.
'As more and more people are increasingly aware, the more alcohol you drink, the greater the risk of developing a number of serious potentially life limiting health conditions, such as high blood pressure and heart disease, as well as seven types of cancer.
'Regular drinking also increases the amount of calories consumed and can contribute to weight gain and obesity. It also impacts on mental health and anxiety levels and affects sleep.
'The Chief Medical Officers advise that to keep the health risks from alcohol to a low level, men and women should not be regularly drinking more than 14 standard units a week, which is six standard glasses of 13% wine or six pints of 4% beer.
'If you choose to drink, and regularly drink as much as this, then it’s best to spread your drinking evenly over three or more days.
'We would also encourage people to think about having several drink free days a week to help them cut back and keep the risks low.'
Andrew Misell, Director of Alcohol Concern in Wales. also explains:
'Claire’s account of her week shows the pitfalls that all of us who drink will be familiar with – we start out with such good intentions and then we get a bit carried away. It’s easily done, and it’s not the end of the world. That said, it’s always worth thinking about how much we’re drinking and why.'
'Maybe we’ve got into a routine of always having a drink at certain times and we’re doing it more by habit than for pleasure. It’s worth considering too whether our drinking is getting in the way of other things we want to do – are we letting good stuff pass us by because we’re too drunk or too hungover?'