What’s wrong with young peo­ple to­day? They don’t get drunk any more

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion - Richard God­win

You don’t need to spend much time adrift in the 21st-cen­tury me­di­as­cape to con­clude that there is some­thing se­ri­ously wrong with young peo­ple to­day. Mil­len­ni­als are more nar­cis­sis­tic, anx­ious, an­noy­ing, en­ti­tled, com­mu­nist and fond of av­o­ca­dos than any gen­er­a­tion ever; mil­len­ni­als are killing ev­ery­thing from may­on­naise to di­a­monds to the car in­dus­try; mil­len­ni­als are mak­ing ev­ery­one else feel bad; mil­len­ni­als – get this! – don’t even drink any more.

The fig­ures just re­leased by the Health Sur­vey for Eng­land lend weight to what is be­com­ing a fa­mil­iar trope. In 2015, one in three 16- to 24-yearolds were com­pletely tee­to­tal, com­pared with one in five in 2005. Life­time ab­stain­ers rose from 9% to 17%; mean­while rates of harm­ful drink­ing have de­clined. In 2015, 28% ad­mit­ted to drink­ing above the rec­om­mended lim­its; 10 years pre­vi­ously, it was 43%. The 10,000 par­tic­i­pants re­ported that com­plete ab­sten­tion was be­com­ing “main­stream”.

What’s go­ing on? Is Brett Ka­vanaugh not proof enough that a youth­ful en­joy­ment of beer is healthy, mas­cu­line, and fully com­pat­i­ble with ap­point­ment to the high­est of­fice? The al­co­hol in­dus­try is clearly spooked too: there are dark mut­ter­ings among in­sid­ers that drink­ing will go the way of smok­ing. I can think of no other rea­son for Di­a­geo to foist its non-al­co­holic gin Seedlip upon us.

In the ab­sence of one over­ar­ch­ing rea­son for the de­cline – and a widespread re­luc­tance to ask some young peo­ple – com­men­ta­tors are free to choose their own moral panic. It can’t sim­ply be that young peo­ple are mak­ing bet­ter choices.

Per­haps they’re all smok­ing weed? Only recre­ational drug use is also down. Per­haps they’re too busy hav­ing dead­eyed app-fa­cil­i­tated sex? Also on the de­cline, I’m afraid.

Mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism ap­pears to have some­thing to do with it – long­stand­ing English tra­di­tions of vom­it­ing up Tyskie on vil­lage greens be­ing sup­planted by cul­tural prac­tices that don’t re­volve around booze. Lon­don, our most mul­ti­cul­tural city, also has the high­est pro­por­tion of non-drinkers in the coun­try. There’s the so­cial me­dia ar­gu­ment: no one wants a com­pro­mis­ing pic­ture on Face­book. There’s the eco­nomic ar­gu­ment: al­co­hol is ex­pen­sive. So is ed­u­ca­tion. A life­time of debt seems a high price to pay for a few nights out. And there’s the psy­cho­log­i­cal ar­gu­ment: al­co­hol makes you lose con­trol. When things al­ready feel out of con­trol, that’s less ap­peal­ing.

It’s prob­a­bly a lit­tle of all these things. But per­haps the most eye­catch­ing ex­pla­na­tion comes cour­tesy of the Amer­i­can psy­chol­o­gist Dr Jean Twenge, au­thor of such par­ent-trolling books as The Nar­cis­sism Epi­demic and Gen­er­a­tion Me. In her lat­est opus, iGen, she cor­re­lates the de­cline of drink­ing with the widespread adop­tion of smart­phones in 2007. It is in this year that you see the hard­est dropoffs in drink­ing (also smok­ing, drug­tak­ing, teen sex, etc) and a con­comi­tant rise in men­tal health dis­or­ders. Smart­phones push many of the same but­tons as these tra­di­tional teenage sig­ni­fiers – “re­bel­lion”, “in­de­pen­dence”, “com­mu­nity”, “re­gret­table choices” – and have ended up sup­plant­ing them. Twenge’s the­sis is that to­day’s young peo­ple are phys­i­cally safer but men­tally much more im­per­illed.

One rea­son the the­ory works is that far from be­ing an English phe­nom­e­non, the de­cline in drink­ing is global – as is the spread of smart­phones. And far from be­ing a young per­son phe­nom­e­non, drink­ing is ac­tu­ally on the de­cline across gen­er­a­tions, across classes, across gen­ders and across re­gions – as is the spread of smart­phones. But you hear less about how thir­tysome­thing men are also drink­ing less al­co­hol. Or fortysome­thing women.

I find that when you ac­tu­ally ask peo­ple why they’re giv­ing up – or sim­ply cut­ting down – their rea­sons are per­fectly ex­pli­ca­ble. The hang­overs be­came too much. They had been through a bad break-up and needed to pull them­selves out of a down­ward spi­ral. They are Mus­lim. They re­alised how much they spent on al­co­hol. They were wor­ried about their health. They never liked it all that much in the first place. Craft beer is whack. Uni­ver­sity cam­puses are dan­ger­ous places when you’re drunk.

I say drink­ing is on the de­cline across all de­mo­graph­ics. There is one out­lier group. Mid­dle-aged men. These are now the prob­lem drinkers, the ones who refuse to ac­cept the risks, the ones who al­co­hol cam­paign­ers want to reach. But you don’t see so many alarmist head­lines about them. Funny that.

• Richard God­win is the au­thor of The Spir­its (Square Peg)

‘In 2015, one in three 16- to 24-year-olds were com­pletely tee­to­tal, com­pared with one in five in 2005.’ Pho­to­graph: John Ren­sten/Getty Im­ages

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