New Year’s Day 2018 – and wedged on the sofa with the mother of all hangovers, I found myself thinking that even the best party probably wasn’t worth this kind of morning after. What I wanted to do was pull on my trainers, head outdoors and welcome 2018 into my life. In reality, I didn’t even have the strength to eat breakfast.
For the 10 months since, as I’ve headed towards my 27th birthday, I’ve consciously tried to cut back on booze. Admittedly, it’s not always gone to plan – but I can live with that. And it seems that I’m not the only one making an effort.
Mindful drinking is no longer a fringe activity. A growing number of people in their 20s now say they favour drinking at a moderate level, or not at all, over getting blackout drunk. The latest data suggests that almost one-third (29 per cent) of 16-24 year olds class themselves as “non drinkers”, while the number of under 25s who admit to binge drinking has decreased from 27 per cent in 2005 to 18 per cent in 2015.
So why is our love affair with alcohol on the rocks? Did we just all have one too many nights out?
Membership of Club Soda, which has run mindful drinking and alcohol-free social events across the UK since 2014, now stands at 23,000 people says co-founder Laura Willoughby. That reflects the nation’s changing views on alcohol, she argues, with members ditching booze for a number of reasons – from concern over finances to people becoming more diet- and health-conscious.
“Expectations of a night out also are greater,” she says. “Young people want an experience that is Instagrammable – hence the rise of cocktails and good food offerings. Vertical drinking just does not cut it any more.”
Bryony Farmer, 21, agrees that social media is a factor, with younger Millennials and Gen-Zers viewing embarrassing photos of intoxication and “deciding they can survive without it”. Although alcohol was never off limits when she was growing up – her parents let her try watered down wine from the age of seven – when Bryony’s friends started experimenting with alcohol as teenagers, she didn’t want to join them.
She thought: “You know what, I don’t actually like this and I’d be fine with a Coke”. Once she’d made that decision, it was easy to stop drinking, Farmer says. “Sometimes if I’m with a new group of people they’ll question me about it, but all my close friends are cool with it. Our group is more relaxed and we don’t tend to go out partying that much, especially now some of us are working and others are finishing uni.”
There has been an increase in awareness around mental health in the past five years, with many UK campaigns and charities targeting younger people, which Willoughby believes could have contributed to twenty-somethings reassessing their relationships with alcohol.
Both Dan Burns, 21, from Northumberland, and Nicola Semple, 29, from Yorkshire, tell me they have significantly reduced their alcohol consumption after noticing it seemed to have a negative effect on their mental health. Burns decided to make the change during his final year at university, a time typically associated with care-free (read: alcohol-fuelled) nights out. He works at a bar alongside his studies – which has raised a few eyebrows. “They enjoy the irony of a sober bartender,” he jokes.
Burns, who has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), realised that drinking was exacerbating his poor mental health when his girlfriend left for a year abroad. “I’ve never been a big drinker anyway, I didn’t start until I was 18 and I was never the ‘sit in the park with a 2 litre bottle of cider’ stereotype,” he says. “I’ve drunk occasionally since deciding to quit, but even then it’s maybe once a month if I feel obliged to, and I won’t drink to get drunk.”
Semple made the decision to cut back in 2014, because she felt alcohol was increasing her symptoms of depression and anxiety. She noticed that, for a few days after she’d had a drink, her state of mind deteriorated. “I used to drink way more than I should on nights out, so when my mental illness was severe cutting it out altogether was the only option,” she says. “The most I usually have [now] is two drinks if I am at an event or party.”
There have been positive physical changes too: Burns says his sleeping pattern has improved, while Semple is two-and-a-half stone lighter after combining her low-alcohol lifestyle with a healthier diet.
Bryony Bateman, 23, from Cambridgeshire, also stopped drinking alcohol at the age of 19 for health reasons. She has psoriasis, a condition that causes sore, flakey skin, and can’t mix alcohol with her medication. But even if she could drink now, she’s probably wouldn’t. “I have had maybe five or six nights such as my 21st birthday where I’ve either decided to drink or I’ve been convinced to drink and each time I’ve hated it,” she says. “I hate the feeling of being out of control and the hangover the next day isn’t worth it one bit.”
Farmer, Bateman, Burns and Semple all have active, booze-free social lives, without the need for booze. There are now more alcohol-free and low ABV options in bars and pubs, with UK sales of low or no alcohol beer increasing 20.5% between 2016 and 2017.
“I still socialise, I still meet friends in pubs or bars – I just won’t drink,” Burns says. “It’s positive for me to know that just because I’m not drinking, I’m not going to feel isolated or excluded.”
But while drinking moderately or not at all has becoming more commonplace, Farmer is still occasionally faced with those who find it “shocking” that she doesn’t drink. In these situations she chooses to remind people of the health risks of excessive alcohol consumption – higher cancer, stoke and heart disease rates – plus the fact alcohol-related harm costs NHS England £3.5 billion per year alone. “I find it quite shocking that our attitudes towards other drugs are generally quite harsh, but we seem to forget alcohol is one too.”
That does, however, appear to be changing. How quickly is perhaps surprising: while Bateman has always had support from friends and family, she would not have guessed that 29 per cent of 16-24s don’t drink.
“I think that’s amazing, I think the whole ‘if you don’t drink you’re boring’ thing might be thing of the past,” she says. But while Bateman does have friends who are drinking less because they can’t handle the hangovers, she admits: “I don’t have any close friends who have completely stopped drinking – it’s just me.”
For Semple, the rise of moderate drinking has been a long time coming. Socialising in general has changed, she reflects. “Alcohol seemed to be what socialising revolved around when I was age 18-24. But I think friendships were less meaningful because of that,”
“I’d like to think that with mental health being such a focal point nowadays, friendships are built on much deeper things than a Jägerbomb and a tequila shot.”