Young people are drinking less than their parents’ generation
Despite what we might think, young people in the UK today are drinking less alcohol than their parents’ generation did when they were young. This picture is reflected in many other high-income countries like Australia, Germany, Sweden and the US. Young people are starting drinking later, drinking smaller amounts and drinking less frequently.
Why might young people be drinking less today?
A number of different reasons have been proposed to help explain this trend, including: policy initiatives targeting underage purchasing, migration patterns, affordability of alcohol, changing social norms, changes in parenting, drug substitution and greater health consciousness among young people. However, there’s little consensus about the key drivers and how they might interact. Instead, researchers increasingly believe the decline does not stem from a single factor directly related to alcohol but from wide-ranging shifts in young people’s attitudes towards risk in general, and also towards their futures.
About our research project
Much of the debate to date focuses on the views of researchers and commentators on the decline. Our most recent research aimed to explore what young people themselves think are the main factors driving this change. We carried out 38 individual or small group interviews with 96 young people in a variety of educational contexts in Northern England. We also carried out an online survey of 547 young people in England. The young people who took part were aged 12-19.
So, what do young people think is driving this change?
From the survey, young people’s top reasons for the decline in young drinking were:
- In first place, with 32% of the votes, was the risk of alcohol-related harm.
- In second place, with 27% of the votes, was changes in youth culture and places where young people socialise.
- And in third place, with 22% of the vote, was the affordability of alcohol.
Top 3 reasons:
Risk & alcohol (32%)
In the interviews, young people talked about lots of different risks that they associated with alcohol. These included chronic health harms (e.g. liver disease, cancer, mental ill-health) and shorter-term consequences (e.g. public drunkenness, damage to personal relationships, accidents and drunk driving). Some young people talked about the undesirable effects it could have: ‘Who wants to really throw up and have a hangover? I mean it’s not really worth it in my opinion’. Some girls also talked about gendered risks – sexual violence for girls and physical violence for boys.
Changes in youth culture & places where young people socialise (27%)
Young people also talked in the interviews about staying at home more during the school week and socialising via social media. They discussed how current legislation makes it difficult for them to buy alcohol in pubs so they’re less likely to socialise there. They thought that drinking outside in places like parks was a sign of immaturity or an unnecessary risk. Further, they thought that alcohol had lost much of its potency as a marker of rebellion and that there was less pressure from peers to consume alcohol: ‘You’ve not got the people trying to be like, “Oh, I’m breaking the rules I’m doing something I shouldn’t”, trying to get the attention’.
The affordability of alcohol (22%)
Young people commonly talked about the cost of alcohol as a reason for the decline in youth drinking. However, they also talked about strategies to get around this like taking alcohol from parental stores or purchasing cheap forms of alcohol.
Drugs instead? (17%)
Some of the older young people talked about drugs being easier to access than alcohol these days and sometimes also cheaper. They also thought that cannabis, in particular, enabled young people to get a ‘high’ without the risk of a hangover (so it would have less of a negative impact on schoolwork etc).
Access & legislation (11%)
Young people often talked about changes in the regulatory environment. Family stories were key to their understanding – so they talked about parents’ stories of how easy it was to access alcohol ‘in their day’ and contrasted this with initiatives like Challenge/Think 25 these days. Again though, they also talked about how they could get around strict regulation e.g. via parents or older siblings.
Focussing on the future (8%)
Some young people described their generation as more mature and responsible than their parents’ generation and more concerned about doing well at school to secure their futures. Drinking was seen as antithetical to focusing on doing well in education. However, ‘future orientations’ was amongst the least cited reasons for the decline in the survey.
Changes in parenting (6%)
Contemporary parents were described as being more concerned about under-age drinking than previous generations of parents and maintaining closer surveillance over their children.
So what does all this mean?
Interestingly, not many young people were actually aware of the decline in youth drinking before the research project. A notable minority thought that this jarred with their everyday experiences and observations. Despite this, young people’s explanations for the decline in youth drinking aligned well with those that have been generated by researchers and commentators. Young people’s focus on the diverse risks of alcohol and changes in youth cultures and spaces of socialisation highlights the importance of understanding young people’s approach to alcohol consumption as not simply about alcohol, but instead about the broader context of young people’s everyday lives and the policies that affect them.
Written by Dr Hannah Fairbrother, Senior Lecturer in Public Health, University of Sheffield.
All IAS Blogposts are published with the permission of the author. The views expressed are solely the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Institute of Alcohol Studies.