Courtesy of Club Soda, UK, via Time
Britain, famed for its youthful binge drinking culture, seems to be undergoing a change. Not only are millennials on the whole drinking less alcohol, a large number of them are shunning it completely. According to newly published research, 29 percent of people in England aged 16 to 24 classed themselves as non-drinkers in 2015 – up from 18 percent in 2005. The British media has dubbed them “Generation Sensible”.
This change is not confined to the British, as Time magazine reported in August:
“It’s most evident in developed and Western countries; in Australia, alcohol consumption recently reached its lowest point since the early 1960s, the decline driven almost entirely by reductions in youth drinking. In Germany, teen drinking has dropped by half over the past 30 years. And although drinking data varies widely from state to state in the U.S., research by the Institute of Alcohol Studies suggests that young people are consuming less alcohol than previous generations did at the same age.”
It fits with the American phenomenon of declining sexual activity among young adults.
Well, hooray! But what is behind the abstinence trend? Are millennials a lot more virtuous than we thought? The reasons Time reports after talking to a bunch of young British teetotalers at the Mindful Drinking Festival in London are more pragmatic and environmental than ethical, but the fact that they have opted out of the prevalent drinking culture says a lot for their moral fibre.
Health consciousness features prominently. Public health messaging about the effects of alcohol on the adolescent brain is getting through to the target population. It puts the morning after binge drinking experience in a more serious light: not a rite of passage to skite about but something that could spoil the rest of your life. One Time interviewee gave up booze because of mental illness and went on to found his own non-alcoholic brand.
The wellness movement plays a role. A young woman who also realised binge drinking was harming her mental health suggests that today’s caution is “to do with the rise of mindfulness; people are more aware of what they are putting into their bodies and how it will make them feel.”
Economic factors are also important. In an era of stagnant wages and soaring housing costs, alcohol affordability is driving down consumption, especially among under-age drinkers. A 27-year-old abstainer told Time that formerly he “could easily spend up to £80 ($105) on a night out on alcohol alone.” He adds: “Now that money goes on other nice things like holidays and dinners out. It feels more justified.” A student who belongs to her university’s 1000-strong Alternative Social group for Non-Drinkers and Non-Clubbers, talks about how much money she saves by drinking water, lemonade or Diet Coke.
Social reasons include generational change: young people are distinguishing themselves from their parents’ heavy drinking generation, suggests and expert.
And social media makes millennials wary of “doing something stupid and ending up on the internet for the rest of time,” one says. But the internet and smartphones are also keeping teenagers and 20-somethings at home more, messaging each other, playing videogames or streaming movies from the internet, among other things.
Parental influence and government regulations are also cited by Time. British parents think increased regulation around drinks sales to young people is mainly responsible for the decline in under-age drinking. In the US, helicopter parenting is also credited with making younger millennials more cautious about risk-taking.
In both the US and the UK young adults are increasingly living with their parents while they establish themselves in a changing job market and remain unmarried. Official figures for the UK from a year ago showed that nearly a third of young men (ages 20 to 34) were living with their parents, compared with a fifth of young women in the same age group. Having mum and dad around no doubt reduces both sex and drinking.
Bowing to the trend, liquor giants like Heineken are entering the non-alcoholic drinks market, and in 2016 Diageo, the world’s largest distiller, invested in Seedlip, a UK-based non-alcoholic brand.
This is all good news, and millennial abstainers like those who spoke to Time are proud of leading the way. “I like to think one day Generation Sensible will be remembered positively, for helping people finding fulfilment from more authentic or natural experiences,” said the young woman who spoke about mindfulness. “It sounds cheesy, but you really can get high on life alone.”
All of which goes to show that today’s young people are just as capable as those of any other era of “abstinence” when they set their minds to it. So, it would be good to see a Time magazine feature soon on the millennials, anywhere, who are giving sex a miss, for whatever reason, until they meet their life’s partner. We know that some already do that, but the Boomers and Xers who write the sex education script still need convincing.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.