A third of pub visits are now alcohol-free, but drinking has been losing its cred in pop culture for a while now.
By Daisy Jones
September 1, 2022
“Wake up in the mornin’ feelin’ like P Diddy / Grab my glasses, I’m out the door, I’m gonna hit this city / Before I leave, brush my teeth with a bottle of Jack / ‘Cause when I leave for the night, I ain’t comin’ back…”
If you’re over the age of 25, you probably remember the very catchy and silly opening lines from the Ke$ha song “Tik Tok,” released in 2009. The song was everywhere – on radios, soundtracking uni halls pre-drinks, blasting onto sticky dancefloors while people with side fringes and denim shorts over tights snogged each other before the DJ cut to “Tipsy” by J-Kwon.
This was also the era of Skins – a TV show that announced itself with an advert of teens looking fucked off their faces, vomiting one after the other. It was a time when you couldn’t open the pages of the NME without encountering an ex-Libertine swigging from an old pirate-looking bottle of rum or someone from an electroclash band in glittery jeggings glugging straight champers. And when Rihanna rounded the decade off by releasing “Cheers (I’ll Drink to That)” in 2010, most of us thought everyone would spend the years ahead doing just that. Just as they always had done. Cheers to the freakin’ weekend. I’ll drink to that.
But over ten years have passed and look around you: booze has all but dried up. According to a 2022 survey from Drinkaware, 26 percent of 16 to 24-year-olds in the UK are now “fully teetotal”. In August, a report from KAM and Lucky Saint found that almost a third of all pub visits are now alcohol-free. This isn’t a new or sudden shift either: The non-alcoholic beverages market has grown by over 506 percent since 2015, and Google searches for “sober curious” peaked in 2021 following the pandemic. Stories about Gen Z and even millennials becoming sick of drinking have barely left the news cycle.
We could sit and spend hours theorising about why people – especially younger people in the UK – aren’t mainlining booze like they used to. They’re overworked and underpaid, most likely. They don’t have time for hangovers because their every free moment has to be funnelled into two to three side hustles. They prefer being online. They’re too anxious about the climate crisis. But, ultimately, many of these theories seem to overlook one major factor, which is that alcohol simply… isn’t cool anymore. Ketamine, weed and mushrooms are doing just fine, apparently. But alcohol? It’s undergone a PR crisis.
Once you notice, it’s inescapable. At the time of writing, not a single track in the UK Top 10 mentions getting fucked up. “I don’t party but I heard Cardi there, so fuck it, I might attend it,” raps Cental Cee in “Doja” (can you imagine a rapper in the 2000s admitting they don’t party?). None of the most popular TV shows of the past few years – Sex Education, Heartstopper even Euphoria – seem to glamorise drinking in the way TV used to, either. When Euphoria characters swig from bottles, rabidly or while driving, it’s meant to signify a serious issue. Binge-drinking in pop culture is now more often packaged as bleak and concerning – not edgy, laissez-faire, or something to aspire to.
I wanted to speak to some other people about this shift in drinking culture. The guy behind Secret Drug Addict – an anonymous Twitter account known for its frank posts about drugs and alcohol at the height of Britpop – agrees that attitudes have changed. He’s been sober since 2007, but spent the best part of the 90s and 00s working for record labels, partying with bands like Oasis and the Libertines and getting completely off his nut.
“I think [drinking] was quite celebrated back then,” he remembers. “It was rock ‘n’ roll. Over the years, peoples’ attitudes towards excessive drinking have changed slightly. Back then, if someone got into an absolute state it would be more like, ‘Oh, they’re a lightweight.” They wouldn’t, he says, immediately be concerned. Everyone is “a lot more clued up about mental health stuff” these days.
He reels off other reasons: “No one likes to do the same drugs as their parents did, so there’s that element. Also, the price of it. I go out and get a round in and it’s £40. Also, the music industry now is so dependent on live shows because records don’t sell. [They] spend most of [their] life on the road; they can’t drink like they used to. So musicians are healthier. And if you’re young and the musicians you’re into aren’t pictured drinking… it’s not aspirational.”
Tom Neilson, 31, remembers alcohol being a kind of omnipresent force in pop culture throughout his teens and early 20s. “A lot of pop culture at the time was really focused on drinking culture,” he says. “There was a huge focus on celebrities leaving clubs drunk, drunk behaviour being seen as entertaining on reality TV, and I feel like even every song at the time was about being trashed and how fun it is to get drunk.”
So, what changed? Rachel Lee, an insights and culture analyst at The Digital Fairy, a creative agency specialising in youth culture, thinks the reasons for binge-drinking losing its “edge” are nuanced. Ten or 15 years ago, many of us didn’t fully grasp that a pic of us vomiting K Cider into a bush might remain online forever. That’s not the case anymore. “Being brought up by the internet, young people are highly vigilant of the risks of their drunken behaviour being filmed and permanently embedded on social media,” she says.
There are other reasons too, she says, like the mainstreaming of health anxiety. “Younger generations witnessed and lived through the rise – and fall – of wellness in the past decade,” Lee adds. “On one hand, their nuanced understanding of health underpins a desire to avoid both the physical and mental risks of drinking (see also: #hangxiety), but on the other hand, their most formative, permitted-to-party, coming-of-age years were erased by a global pandemic – and some of them just want to let loose!”
Like Lee, Neilson also thinks social media has altered the trajectory of how we view alcohol today. “I think social media creating this need to be perfect has taken away the ‘carefree’ vibe of the 2010s, where people would upload 100 Facebook photos from a night out and everyone would look like they had just been on a two-week bender,” he says, adding: “If Kim Kardashian was photographed in the same way Lindsay Lohan was people would be so shocked now – but it was normal to us.”
For Sarah, 23, it’s not that her and her friends don’t drink at all (“I drink maybe once in two months”). It’s more that no one is going to turn around and think she’s boring or a weirdo for not getting completely wasted. Maybe in her teen years, she says, but not now. “We have smaller parties where my friends do drink, but they don’t care that I don’t [drink],” she says. “We also more recently started working out together which really helped me become more consistent at the gym. We also go for coffee quite a bit.”
While speaking to people for this article, the same themes came up again and again. Partying isn’t going anywhere, and it never has done. Young people today still like to go wild just as much as previous generations (we know, for example, that 16 to 24-year-olds have never bumped so much ketamine). And those in their teens, 20s and 30s do still drink, obviously – otherwise there would be no need for bars. Alcohol isn’t obsolete just yet.
But it’s very clear that heavy drinking is just not as cool as it used to be – it’s gone out of style. “As a nostalgic generation, Gen Z explored the indie sleaze era through fashion aesthetics, but did away with the ‘sleaze’ of heavy drinking that defined that very era,” says Lee.
If anything, getting trashed has become cringey. Sobriety is normal. Being teetotal is fine. We used to see our favourite bands at festivals with a Jack Daniels in one hand a burning cigarette in the other. Now they put their best foot forward on social media, taking selfies at the gym or speaking about the mental health benefits of magic mushrooms. Which can only be a positive thing – hangovers suck, and projectile vomiting on the night bus has never been a vibe.
Will it be like this forever? Probably not. Life has taught us that trends are cyclical and sometimes unexpected. For now though, I hope everyone enjoys not being hungover. See you at the gym.