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Katie Taylor asks why so many young people are turning their backs on booze
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How many young people visit your local pub regularly? I’m talking punters between 18(ish) to 22 years old. Fresh-faced and full of beans. Whippersnappers. Heel-biters. Little tiny babies. If your pub isn’t the village’s main centre of social activity come the weekend, or awash with cheap student drinks offers on quiz night, the chances are your pub doesn’t play host to many young people at all. It’s not because they don’t feel welcome, or that they hate horse brasses and log fires; the truth is, Generation Z (that’s young people from the age of 12 to the age of 22) really don’t seem to be bothered about drinking. 

Next time you’re out, have a quick look around the pub and try to judge, non-creepily if you can, how old the average ‘young person’ is in there. Of course, you might be one, and congratulations if you are – so jealous – but you’ll probably find the average age might not be quite as low as you’d expect. Drinking habits have changed slowly but radically over the past decade. Just like Great Langdale was formed by the barely-detectable movements of glaciers over time, this seismic change is creating a cavernous rift in the very fabric of our pub culture, but nobody’s really sure how it got to be so very big without any of us noticing it happening before our eyes.

Who are these youngsters and why should you care?

The first thing to really underline about the astute, opinionated youngsters of today is that they’re not Millennials. Unlike the 22-37 year-old Millennial generation who stand over them, stemmed glass of milkshake IPA in one hand, smartphone in the other, Generation Z have grown up with a world of information at their fingertips. The internet, social media, instant messaging – none of this has ever had novelty value for them. They’ve been using iPads since they were old enough to point. As a result, they see their teachers, parents and even their older siblings as easily-led slaves to fake news spread via Facebook. They feel they have better things to do than speak to strangers on Twitter. They’d rather use Snapchat to talk to their real friends, stay in and spend time with their family (believe it or not), or go out for something to eat. Yng ppl dn’t spk in txt spk so much anymore, and if they are, it’s probably ironic, or part of a wider meme you’re not familiar with. 

It’s not all harmless either. Learning about the dangers of every aspect of adult life is just a tap and a scroll away. Hearing about how messed up the world is and how we’re living in precarious times filled with violence and prejudice and antibiotic-resistant illnesses is an everyday conversation. There are apps for mindfulness and meditation to calm their frayed nerves, but there are also apps aimed at school-aged children to help them manage their time better. It’s terrifying. It’s a lot.

Getting to know Generation Z is the first step towards understanding why they’re shunning alcohol in their droves. Living in a world of fear has raised a generation of paranoid teenagers. You’d think it would lead them to drink. In fact, it seems Public Health England and most Hollyoaks storylines have successfully encouraged them to believe all alcohol, from vodka to beer, poses an immediate threat to their health. In most young people’s minds, drinking is as bad for you as smoking, a habit they also feel will definitely, 100% kill you one day. They’re also very concerned about addiction, and this is often due to seeing people close to them suffer.

“I don’t need a drink to have fun”

I’m a person just like you

But I’ve got better things to do

Than sit around and fuck my head

Hang out with the living dead.

Straight Edge by Minor Threat

Remember when being straight edge was a punk political statement? Being sober isn’t a big deal to Generation Z. Why drink “to excess” and ruin your day off with a hangover? Why end up spewing outside a club while people film it and send the video to your mates? Why drink three beers when you’ve been carefully watching what you eat all week? Oh, that’s another thing. Health-conscious Generation Z’s are hitting the gym, and trying to eat more healthily than ever. Perhaps they’re taking control of their world in the one way they can. Perhaps they’re trying to get shinier hair and clearer skin for their Instagram photos. Perhaps it’s both. 

In a survey I ran, covering young people from the ages 12 - 22 on their drinking habits, I asked participants to tell me why they didn’t drink alcohol, in their own words. These are some of the answers I received.

 “I prioritise health and fitness and spend too much time in the gym and eating well to let it go to waste for a drink.”

 “I promised my granddad I wouldn’t drink when he was in a bad way.”

 “I don’t need to drink to have fun.”

 “Beer and alcohol is bad for your liver and gets you into serious accidents.”

 “I’m not really bothered about it.”

 “Being drunk gives me panic attacks.”

Chloe Combi is a former teacher and youth issues consultant to many government organisations. In her book “Generation Z”, she compiles interviews with young people about a variety of different subjects important to every generation: family, relationships, body, sex, technology, class and crime. While the entries in the book aren’t specifically related to beer and alcohol, and although every child and teenager interviewed is unique and from a totally different area, background and level of affluence, one theme rings out clearly: They’re worried about everything. They’re particularly worried that their parents drink far too much.

I know what you’re thinking. I’m thinking the same thing. When I was worried about stuff at their age, I drank with my mates. Funnily enough, 67% of the participants in my extremely non-scientific study said that when they do drink, they go to pubs with their friends. But, also according to my survey, around 40% only drink on special occasions, or once or twice a month at the most. So even if they are going to the pub, they’re not going to the pub a lot. In addition, not one person said they had ever been to a pub alone. Mostly they drink at friends’ homes or elsewhere with friends, and that’s when they do drink. 16% of all the people who filled out my survey said they never drink.

In a recent interview, Chloe Combi said: “There is no luxury of time – everything is pressurised; it’s focused on results and what are you going to do with your life. The days of stumbling into jobs that are cool are long gone. It’s completely changed the face of university.” 

Essentially, we’ve created a generation of young people who feel like they simply don’t have time to get drunk, or who are too tired to go out on a Friday, or who don’t see the point in wasting a weekend when they could be doing something that would look good on their CV. Stories covering Generation Z in the national news often fail to do young people justice, painting them either as puritanical, agoraphobic hand-wringers or image-obsessed, sexting maniacs living secret lives paid for by Instagram affiliate marketing gains. In a Berenberg study from September 2017, this juicy little quote-nugget hammers the point home:

“Twenty years of anti-drug, anti-smoking and anti-alcohol education has done its job: it is no longer ‘uncool’ to not drink or take drugs”

So what do we want to do? Obviously we would prefer the beer industry to continue to thrive, but it would be disingenuous (not to mention illegal) to tell young people that beer is healthy in order to increase sales. In some ways it’s good that the days of Binge Britain may finally come to a close, but will the knock-on effect mean an end to our pub culture as we know it? 

One of the ways we can already see the beer and night time leisure industries adapting is the increase in production of lower-alcohol and no-alcohol beers. While breweries all over the world are trying their hand at making delicious table beers, the low-alcohol trend has chimed serendipitously with our growing desire for sour beer styles. Berliner weisse is a great example - a lip-smacking and refreshing beer, with no sense of anything “missing”, it’s happiest at around 3% ABV. Of course, you won’t get Gen Z’s who prefer premium spirits because of their nutrition plans to choose lower-strength beer straight away, but offering enticing choices is a step in the right direction.

Which reminds me, here’s why the 75% of youngsters in my survey who do drink alcohol don’t drink beer: they don’t like the taste. 23% of the respondents drink lager. 3% drink “craft beer”, just FYI. Could education and better sales techniques be the answer to this generation’s lack of interest? After all, if they’re not going to pubs very often, they’re not talking to bar staff, bar owners or brewers. How can we get them to taste beer and find a style they like in the first place? Are breweries targeting 18-22 year olds efficiently enough, now we’ve looked into how different they are to Millennials? Is there a way of doing this responsibly and ethically while responding to their concerns about health, addiction and self-control? 

The idea of creating pubs that welcome teetotallers just as readily is also a potentially lucrative one. Sure, you’ve got soft drinks, but how’s the alcohol-free beer and cider situation looking? Have you got decent snacks on offer? Is the place nice enough to sit in for a few hours without having to get a bit of a buzz going? Do young people feel safe and welcome, or at least as safe and welcome as everyone else there? 

As neat and tidy as it would be to say it’s about the price of alcohol, it doesn’t seem to be a major factor in the decision-making process. For the most part, young people are no more struggling to afford beer than we did at their age; they’ve just realised that not spending their money on alcohol makes them a lot better off, and able to become more independent sooner. Where Millennials are more likely to be living with their parents until well into their 30s, Generation Z’s priorities are about avoiding the debt that’s crippled their families and/or the families of people they know. They’re frugal, but they still buy luxury products, opting for value and quality over everything else. Is that how we tap into their market with alcohol? It’s an interesting one, especially as most craft beer marketing is focused on being fun or having impulse appeal (two Millennial buying styles that Gen Z doesn’t really go for).

First we need to figure out what exactly the problem is that we have with young people avoiding drink. Personally, I’d like to see more young people appreciating the simple pleasure of a pub-based pint. It makes me sad that they’re doing themselves out of one of my favourite things in the world because they’re scared of severe consequences that have arguably been exaggerated. Understanding young people is difficult, but remember, it’s not our place to get on their level. Just listen to them. Only then will we be able to reduce the impact of the choices they make and undo the damage Millennials, Gen Xers and Boomers have unwittingly done to beer’s reputation. 

It’s like Chloe Combi says in the introduction to her book Generation Z - “Teenagers are so used to being spoken at, or to, or about, that when they get the opportunity to speak for themselves, they really seize it.” Chat, learn, grow. And I’ve got a great idea where we could have those difficult, complicated conversations. Pub anyone?

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