More and more young people are choosing not to drink. But what would society be like without alcohol? And could a new alcohol substitute really give us a risk-free buzz?
Michael SegalovSun 15 Jan 2023
Cheers and mazel tov! We’ve made it halfway through January. Yes, our bodies endured a pounding through the festive frivolities, but through that excruciating cumulative hangover we somehow survived. Our recycling bins have been collected, those bottles of bubbly out of sight and mind. New-year-new-me resolutions can now be abandoned. Anyone fancy a pint?
Or this year, does another round feel less appealing? You’re far from alone if, in 2023, you’re considering calling time once and for all. Welcome to the era of the sober-curious; the apparently ever-growing movement of people exploring what life could look like alcohol-free. Among young Brits, the numbers look irrefutable: between 2002 and 2019, the proportion of 16- to 24-year-olds in England who reported monthly drinking fell from 67% to 41%. And while the stats don’t show older adults putting down the plonk on a permanent basis, something is shifting. According to Dry January’s organisers, this year one in six UK adults who drink alcohol are attempting to participate. Alcohol-free beers were once a fringe choice; today they’re found nationwide on supermarket shelves. No longer do 0% orders come with a side of pregnancy questions or bemused stares.
Until recently, I’d assumed my millennial peers to be distinct from this new generation of abstainers – that this was firmly the preserve of Gen Z. But recently, I’ve noticed a change. Now there’s a steady stream of posts appearing on my social media feeds in which friends – in their late 20s or early 30s – announce that they are embarking on sobriety journeys of their own.
Often, these are people quitting not because of what might traditionally be perceived as a drinking problem. Most have simply decided they’re better off without. It’s even seeping into dating: according to the app Bumble, a third of its British users are now more likely to go on a dry date than they were pre-pandemic. And nearly two-thirds of us believe sober dating leads to more lasting connections.
The prospect of a generation of teetotal teens feels a little dreary
I can’t claim to count myself among a generation of disinclined drinkers. Through my teenage years, booze was revered: the epitome of aspirational adulthood. My contemporaries weren’t particularly heavy drinkers in early adolescence, although that was a question of supply over demand. By 15, I was pinching a beer or two from the kitchen cupboard. Soon, my dad’s spirit bottles were slowly but surely watered down. The evening after my final GCSE, a group of us went camping. I downed an entire two-litre bottle of Strongbow while tents were being erected and immediately passed out for the night.
At university, drinking ramped up exponentially. We were better versed in the latest drinks deals than the contents of our courses: two-for-a-fiver bottles of “Italian white” the ideal start to any night, in or out. Now I’m approaching 30, my drinking has certainly been tempered. Tequila Tuesdays? RIP. But drinking is, without doubt, still a cornerstone of my social life, despite my 2017 Sober October attempt. Many of the most joyful experiences of my youth – and, honestly, adulthood – have revolved around getting moderately trashed. Turns out not everyone agrees.
While the phrase “sober-curiosity” gained popularity in 2018, this change in drinking habits can be traced further back. Dr Amy Pennay, a senior research fellow at La Trobe University’s Centre for Alcohol Policy in Melbourne, monitors global alcohol consumption. “In rich countries we are certainly seeing a decline in young people drinking,” Pennay tells me. But this is not unique to the past few years.
Adolescent alcohol consumption has, since the turn of the millennium, been in decline. “The US was the first place to peak, back in 1999,” Pennay says. “In Iceland, Sweden and Scandinavia, the reduction started in 2001. Western Europe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand followed, before most of Europe by the mid-2000s caught up.” Alcohol is an important source of tax revenues: in Japan, the government has even launched a competition to boost drinking among its youth.
“Historically,” Pennay says, “when alcohol consumption changes, it’s mirrored in all parts of the country’s population. Yet older people are continuing to drink, while in young people it’s declining.” This generation, she says, is therefore driving a shift that can’t be explained through traditional factors, such as fluctuations in licensing laws, recession or war. For now, it’s unclear whether they will start drinking a little later. But if current trends continue, and it trickles upwards, alcohol might well look
By 4pm on a wintery, term-time Thursday, the bar at Liverpool University Guild – their students’ union – is crowded. A group of undergrads sit, poring over laptops; beside them, two older-looking punters sip cappuccinos, deep in heated debate. It’s still early, but for a student bar there is surprisingly little boozing; I count only a handful of people necking mid-afternoon pints. It’s fitting that I’m sitting with the head of what would have, until recently, been Liverpool’s somewhat unconventional-sounding Sober Society. Founded in the previous academic year, it’s a new addition to the list of student-led organisations here, but it’s by no means the only such club to appear in the past few years. UCL, Queen Mary’s, York and Leeds are just some of the many institutions now boasting sober-curious groups focused on organising alcohol-free events.
Joey Duckworth, now three and a half years sober, became its president last September. For this 27-year-old astrophysics undergraduate, taking over the society made perfect sense. He first went to university at 19, struggled to keep up, then dropped out. Over the subsequent years, he says, booze became a problem. By the time he re-enrolled, it was firmly in his past. “There’s still a heavy drinking culture at university,” he says, “and Liverpool is known for its nightlife.” At the most recent freshers’ fair, Duckworth staffed the Sober Soc stall, and went for a nose around the other offerings on display. “Every single one had primarily alcohol-based events: bar crawls, pub meet-ups, drinking sessions… We want to offer an alternative to those who don’t want to drink, or to drink less while other societies catch up.”
We head to a seminar room in an adjoining building. Thirty students have gathered for a sober social, supplied with a pile of board games. Last year, these events were focused on facilitating conversations about attendees’ relationships with alcohol. Now, the primary function is to help friendships flourish away from booze. First-year student Hannah has the occasional drink, but has found the scale on campus overwhelming; Isabella, 18, doesn’t like the taste or the feeling of being out of control. “It’s as if there’s less pressure to drink among people now,” Angelina, 19, tells me. “There are so many reasons not to: physical and mental health, it’s expensive and hangovers make it hard to focus on work.”
Even a decade ago, it felt as if the general attitude on campuses was “drink through it”, but among this group there’s no shame in saying no. It’s easy to see what might be driving a generational change in drinking decisions. Digital natives in a way even millennials weren’t, Gen Z are better informed about alcohol’s dangers, more fluent in the language of mental health, addiction and self-care. Through my teens, uploading drunk photos to a newly founded Facebook seemed eminently sensible; today, younger people understand the dangers of these images living online. Put simply, they’re more self-aware. University, meanwhile, is increasingly seen as a route to the labour market, not a piss-up; drinking is a distraction when the fight for jobs is so tough.
It’s possible that booze has also gone out of fashion; “gin-o’clock” culture and prosecco-popping parents might have made alcohol uncool. There are certainly signs of a noticeable increase in the frequency of young people using illegal drugs. And there’s the cost-of-living crisis: alcohol is a luxury many simply can’t afford. Rather than incapacitating themselves, younger people are under pressure to be productive, either in work, or trying to fix the global climate-catastrophe mess.
Few people are better placed to explain this phenomenon than Millie Gooch, the founder of the Sober Girl Society, a vast online community of sober-curious young women, which also holds regular IRL events. Gooch, now 31, used to be a big drinker. “By the age of 26,” she explains, “my life was this revolving cycle of going out, getting pissed, being hungover, then starting again. One morning, I woke up and realised: I can’t do this any more.”
A flurry of new books and online resources offered early guidance. “Google sober-curious and there’s so much there,” Gooch says. “Our parents’ generation didn’t really have these resources: podcasts, influencers, online articles.” Technology is also a factor. “You don’t want to be drunk viral on TikTok, which can happen instantly. Our parents didn’t have to wake up and think, ‘Shit, did I call my ex 15 times last night? And I’d wake up, hungover, to see on Instagram other friends upcycling chairs, being active. I’d feel guilty, spending the weekend drunk or in bed.”
Gooch isn’t preaching a gospel of teetotalism or abstention. This isn’t an AA alternative. “I just want people to see there can be different relationships with alcohol,” she explains. “When I used to drink, there were nights that were fun, where I stayed at a sensible level. The problems arose when I took it too far.”
A Lancet study in 2018 found that there is ‘no safe level of alcohol consumption’
So why the risk? Certainly, looking solely at the medical data, alcohol is a blight on the global population. A Lancet study in 2018 found that there is “no safe level of alcohol consumption”, suggesting governments advise total abstention. A more recent paper published in the same medical journal stated that for those under 40, alcohol should be avoided as it carries significant health risks and no benefits. As Dr Emmanuela Gakidou, its senior author, put it: “Our message is simple: young people should not drink.”
Yet for all the downsides of recreational drinking, it can also bring delight: for centuries, it has been the backdrop to life-affirming adventures; liquid to help us let loose. Something about the prospect of a generation of teetotal teens, never indulging in the pleasures of intoxication because of the endless pressures of 21st-century living feels a little dreary, almost sad. Maybe it’s just my first flirtation with the “it-was-better-in-my-day” phase of ageing. Or could it be that despite the rational basis for abstention, something might also be lost if that’s the case? Alcohol has, for a long time, been placed on a pedestal in western culture. But some believe the pendulum is now swinging too far the other way.
In his 2021 book, Drunk, Edward Slingerland grapples with this very question. A professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia, he believes the current consensus on alcohol consumption isn’t quite right. “We often take a narrow view of the role alcohol has played in the formation of society,” Slingerland suggests, when we speak over Zoom. The focus on public-health messaging, he argues, fails to take account of the other less tangible benefits booze brings to our lives. “Sure,” Slingerland is keen to make clear, “the overall net physiological impact of alcohol is negative. Purely from a health perspective, you probably should stay away from it. But if you take a broader scientific, anthropological and historical view of alcohol, it’s not just about medicine.” Look at the human brain, Slingerland argues, and there could be good reason to pour yourself another glass.
“The prefrontal cortex,” Slingerland explains, “is the centre of executive function for cognitive control. It’s what allows you to stay focused, completing tasks.” Whether in planning, decision-making or moderating behaviour, the PFC is integral. “But it’s double-edged,” says Slingerland. “It’s also limiting: some insights require creativity and thinking outside the box.”
That, Slingerland adds, is where alcohol comes in: put simply, it can turn the PFC down a few notches and expand our minds. “Alcohol is a cultural technology,” Slingerland believes, “that we have developed to briefly get us back to our five-year-old brains when it comes to flexibility and creativity. After a few hours it wears off and we can glean the results.” Across the world, throughout history, alcohol has been associated with creatives: artists, poets, great thinkers. “And this is not a myth,” he says. “There’s good evidence it increases creativity, which as a society we need.”
Alcohol can also play a key role in fostering relationships. By temporarily turning down the PFC, we’re more inclined to trust and be open with other people. “In the same way that shaking hands started out as a way to show we aren’t carrying weapons,” says Slingerland, “drinking beers – taking our PFCs out – is like putting our mental weapons on the side. By relaxing the PFC, it’s harder to lie or fake.” And, he adds, alcohol boosts feelgood chemicals such as dopamine, serotonin and endorphins. “These don’t just make us less inclined to cheat. Because we feel
positive about each other, it creates a sense of bonding that’s crucial for humankind.”
It’s possible, of course, to achieve the same with other substances. Intoxicants like cannabis can serve similar functions, although results are less uniform. These boosts can also come from activities like sleep deprivation, or strenuous group hikes. In religions and cultures that restrict alcohol, Slingerland says, other practices are often employed. But without these alternatives, Slingerland has concluded, we might suffer. “It would be concerning,” he says, “if these effects were wiped out. I’d predict a less creative and more atomised society: if it’s true that young people aren’t getting intoxicated in social environments, I’d predict a reduction in innovation, and a decline in cooperation, too.”
Slingerland articulates what a casual drinker like myself can’t quite put our wobbly fingers on. Why, despite knowing alcohol is hugely addictive, leads to all sorts of illnesses and, in 2021, nearly 10,000 UK deaths, we persevere. In moderation, alcohol is functional; to many, it’s a risk worth taking. And, thankfully, it seems that an answer to this paradox might soon be on the cards.
Professor David Nutt is one of Britain’s leading drug experts. In recent years, he’s been attempting to create a substitute for alcohol. It doesn’t mimic wine or beer flavours – in the end, expensive soft drinks – but has an effect which he calls functional. “Soon,” he explains, “if all goes to plan, we’ll have an ingredient that could be put into any drink to create the sensation of a couple of units of alcohol, reproducing those clear social benefits without risks attached.” Already, one product is on the market: Sentia, a natural, botanical drink that targets some nerve receptors to recreate the experience of those first few glasses. “And we have also invented a new molecule,” Nutt says, “called Alcarelle, currently in food-safety testing. Alcohol is the ultimate social drug. There’s good reason to use it. But we want an alternative that can bring the positives while saving an awful lot of lives.”
The medical basis for not drinking alcohol is obvious. Much like the decrease in numbers of young smokers is well worth celebrating, from a health perspective alcohol’s decline would be a real result. But scratch beneath the surface and it’s not the only driver behind the sober-curious movement. Whether it’s the pressures of social media, education, the economy or job market, maybe young people struggle to see a place for a substance that slows you down amid the strains of modern life. It’s that, I think, that might well worry us.
My fondness for alcohol comes from an appreciation of the pleasure it has – mostly in moderation – brought to my life. For now, as per usual, it seems that young people are making better choices than those who came before them. Thankfully, science might soon offer a solution that could preserve its pleasures while vastly reducing the potential harms. At least that’s something to think about at the pub tonight, or on a strenuous overnight group hike.