“I do feel out of place”: why young people are risking their social lives to go teetotal

16- 24-year-olds are boozing less, but is the UK’s drinking culture really changing? 

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Going into university as a non-drinker, Saranda Sherifi struggled to meet people during freshers’ week. “Drinking was a massive part, to the extent that it was difficult to make friends,” she says, recalling a time she decided to go out to eat alone instead of going on a night out.

Despite Sherifi’s experience of feeling alienated, young people are drinking less booze. Almost 30 per cent of 16- to 24-year-olds said they didn’t drink alcohol, according to a study by the journal BMC Medicine, which also found that the number of lifetime abstainers has increased from 9 per cent in 2005 to 17 per cent in 2015.

Dubbed “generation sensible”, 16- to 24-year-olds are using less drugs, are less likely to smoke and are less likely to be arrested. This seems all the more strange given this cohort is expected to be the booziest of age groups: from rebellious teenagers to freshers attending university parties, to twenty-somethings enjoying their glory years before real hangovers start to kick in and you’re frowned at for drinking warm cans in parks.

“The increase in young people who choose not to drink alcohol suggests that this behaviour maybe becoming more acceptable,” says the study’s lead researcher, Dr Linda Ng Fat. From austerity to religion, the reasons for teetotalism among young people vary, with the BMC study admitting that the underlying factors driving the increased number of abstainers are “unknown”.  

Sherifi “didn’t have a taste for alcohol”, but for others like Aida, also a student, the decision was health-driven. “I’m very conscious of the impact it is going to have on my health,” she says. “If I can minimise the nasty habits in my youth and feel the benefits in my older years, then I will take that.”

Ever since the term “millennial” was coined, the media has been obsessed with how this avocado-endeared, image-infatuated group stands outside of traditional values. So perhaps it should not be such a surprise that the generation known for thinking differently, and the younger generations following in their footsteps, are also doing so when it comes to drinking. 

“There’s less acceptance of drunkenness, behaviour that people used to see as culturally normal in the boomer generation,” says Dr Tony Rao of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. “Young people [also] have a different way of social cohesion through social media, and they’ve also got better information about the harms from alcohol.”

Despite a clear shift in attitudes, some find that university culture can be overbearingly alcoholic, particularly in the first year. “I don’t see drinking and going out at night as that important to making friends, but I think it definitely is a peer pressure thing,” says Sherifi. “I have friends who have said they would just go drinking on a night out just to make friends.”

Whilst Aida doesn’t struggle to socialise with both drinking and non-drinking friends, she says that in her first year, she often found that, “you have to have alcohol there to break the social barrier”.

This isn’t confined to university, however. Abbas Kanani, 28, is a Muslim and says that he has occasionally avoided social occasions. “I still feel a little uncomfortable being around that environment,” he says. “As you’re not in the same frame of mind as [drinkers], you’re going to find it harder to fit in.”

This concern is the focus of Club Soda, a “mindful drinking” movement started in 2015 that aims to “create a world where nobody feels out of place if they are not drinking alcohol”. Club Soda hosts events across the country, and this weekend will host Scotland’s first ever alcohol-free drinks festival in Glasgow.

“It’s a really strange situation we’ve got in the UK,” says co-founder Laura Willoughby MBE. “We’ve been able to turn one of the most beautiful things that happens, which is meeting new people, into something that we think we can only do with alcohol.

“What young people tell me is that often we’re drinking to [combat] social anxiety of being in company and making new friends.”

Club Soda aims to make experiences traditionally associated with drinking amenable to non-drinkers, but Willoughby says the UK is still an “alcohol-first culture”, where drinking underpins much of what constitutes adult social activity. The recent rise in non-alcoholic alternatives suggests that this attitude is beginning to change; according to this year’s Mintel Alcoholic Drinks Review, 42 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds said they are drinking more low alcohol or alcohol-free drinks.  “I want people to say yes to going to the pub even if they’re not drinking,” says Willoughby. “I think British pubs are important to all of us whether we’re drinking or not.”

Alternatives to alcohol are also publicised through social media. “In 2012 when the Instagram hype started to build up, you slowly started to see all these fitness gurus promoting,” says Kanani. “One thing I’ve noticed is that posts don’t revolve around alcohol and going out, it’s literally just health and fitness.”

Add to that a large focus on mental health, with some 54 per cent of UK millennials viewing their mental health as being of utmost importance according to marketing agency inkling. All of these wellbeing concerns together do not bode well for alcohol consumption and its associations with increased anxiety, stress, and brain chemistry. It's also possible to have fun without alcohol. “People are opting to socialise in a different way that doesn't require alcohol,” says Aida. “As I've got older, I’ve been like ‘I'd rather go to an open mic night’, or something else instead of going out for a drink.”