Generation sensible: UK teens give up alcohol
Is this a tipping point for society’s favourite drug? Humanity has been consuming alcohol for at least 10,000 years, but now almost a third of young people do not drink at all.
The humble pint. A glass of bubbly. Whether it is a quick one after work or a birthday toast, alcohol has always had a place in our social culture.
But for how much longer?
A new survey has revealed that the proportion of young people who have never tried alcohol almost doubled between 2005 and 2015, from 9% to 17%. Some 29% of 16 to 24-year-olds described themselves as “non-drinkers”, up from 18% in 2005. Half had not drunk alcohol in the last week, compared with 35% 10 years before.
“Previously it was mainly the elderly who were more likely to be abstainers. Now 16 to 24-year-olds are the second biggest group,” said the report’s author, Dr Linda Ng Fat.
We have a long history with alcohol. Archaeologists found a 10,000-year-old beer brewing site in southern Turkey, and wine was first produced 8,000 years ago in Georgia.
But the relationship could go back much further. Some experts even believe that humanity’s evolution into social, large-brained primates may be down to our ancestors’ taste for fermented fruit.
Indeed, there is evidence that early humans first turned to agriculture not to grow food, but to brew beer.
Drinking has been embedded in societies ever since. During the English Civil War, citizens would raise a toast to show their allegiances. Refusing could get you killed.
From the Gin Acts of 18th-century England to prohibition in the US, various governments have declared war on the social ills of drunkenness but never got very far.
Now, however, the young are turning away from alcohol of their own volition. It follows a general trend in less risky behaviour, with young people also smoking less and taking fewer drugs than recent generations.
Scientist John Holmes thinks the change could be great for public health. “If this generation also drinks less in later adulthood, we may see big reductions in 20 or 30 years in the diseases caused by alcohol.”
Alcohol-related illnesses currently costs the NHS £3.5 billion a year.
Is this the tipping point for society’s favourite drug?
Our drinking days are numbered, say some. Smoking rates plummeted after a stream of public health campaigns publicised the dangers. The same is now happening to alcohol, and as time goes on, drunkenness will become socially unacceptable. Besides, technology means young people are far more likely to text than meet up for a drink.
No way, argue others. Drinking was high in 1900, low in 1950, peaked again in 2004 and is now on the decline. These are just generational trends; the cycle will inevitably begin again. Factors like low disposable incomes and the boom in the wellness industry might mean drinking is less popular at the moment, but these changes come and go.
- Do you think social media has played a role in young people drinking less alcohol?
- Will we ever stop drinking alcohol?
- Why do people drink? Think of as many reasons as you can in two minutes. Discuss your answers as a class and think about the differences between a good reason and bad reason for drinking.
- Do you think the way young people are represented in the media is unfair? Write a one-page response to the idea of “generation sensible” and how it compares with your own experiences.
Some People Say...
“First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.”F. Scott Fitzgerald
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- A survey of 10,000 young people published by BMC Public Health has found that 16 to 24-year-olds drink substantially less alcohol now than 10 years ago. The number of young people who have never consumed alcohol rose from 9% to 17% between 2005 and 2015. Levels of binge drinking have also fallen substantially.
- What do we not know?
- Why exactly young people are drinking less alcohol. One explanation is that they prefer socialising at home on their phones and watching Netflix than meeting up in person. Other reasons include the increased use of social media — meaning drunken moments have a greater chance of ending up in the public sphere — and high alcohol prices combined with lower disposable incomes.
- According to a survey of 10,000 young people between 2005 and 2015 carried out by the Health Survey for England.
- In fermentation, yeast breaks down sugar to make alcohol.
- Farming. Researchers found the earliest wheat cultivated by humans would have made bad bread, but good beer.
- English Civil War
- A conflict fought from 1642 until 1651 between the Parliamentarians, who supported Parliament, and the Royalists, who supported King Charles I. The King was executed in 1649 and his son, Charles II, was exiled in 1651. He was later restored as King in 1660.
- Gin Acts
- In 1700s England, the lower classes started drinking so much gin that it became a public crisis. Parliament passed the Gin Acts of 1736 and 1751 in desperate attempts to halt the flow of gin through London. They were reasonably successful and drunkenness declined.
- It was illegal to produce or sell alcohol in the US between 1920 and 1933. The policy led to an increase in crime as criminals scrambled to supply alcohol through the black market.
- According to their own will.