Introducing Fancy Another? – a weeklong series of what young women's drinking culture in the UK looks like in 2022, with zero percent judgement.
The country is currently vibrating with the sound of wine glasses being pushed to the back of the cupboard as an estimated one in six adults in the UK who drink alcohol plan to partake in Dry January. But what does drinking culture really look like today, for young people in this country? Are we actually buying into Dry Jan this year or, given the many reports that herald Gen Z as the dry generation, are we all already sober?
This week on Refinery29 we’re getting to the bottom of booze culture. We’ll be taking a deep – and nonjudgmental – dive into all things alcohol, from sobriety stories to an investigation into drinking culture at university to genuinely helpful tips if you’re wanting to make 2022 the year you kick the bottle. In doing so, we aim to build a broad and reflective picture of young women’s drinking culture today, while asking (somewhat gingerly) what a healthy relationship with alcohol really looks like.
Millennials are often pushed into the camp of the 'sober curious' and Gen Z painted as the teetotal generation but the reality, of course, is more nuanced. "There are articles dubbing today’s teens as sanctimonious, yoga-going, superfood-loving, outspoken individuals who are far too self-aware to be anything but teetotal," writes trends researcher Dafydd Jones. "Yet, you only need to turn the page to find stories of kids regularly getting wasted on school grounds."
Lucy Holmes, director of research and policy at Alcohol Change UK, agrees. "There is this narrative that young people don't drink anymore so we can stop worrying about them. I'm afraid that isn't the case," she told R29 before Christmas. "As a population cohort, yes, young people are drinking less than the baby boomers. However, the pattern is actually rather than all of Gen Z just drinking a slightly smaller amount, it's that there are greater numbers of people who don't drink at all, but the people who do still drink, drink harmfully."
Holmes thinks we should ditch the confutative idea of 'British drinking culture' altogether. "I really want to challenge it because of course there isn't one, singular culture," she says. "There are many, many drinking cultures in Britain. And it's a real mistake to look at it through a homogenous nationwide pattern."
Differences can be traced both across and within generations, and within different groups, genders and communities. While men have historically consumed more booze than women, the difference between genders has narrowed in recent years. Alcohol Change UK has found that among younger drinkers, the amount consumed (and the amount of 'binge drinking' involved) is similar – and, in some cases, higher – among young women.
Just because there’s not one, catch-all definition of drinking in the UK, it doesn’t mean we don’t have a worrying nationwide problem with booze, with NHS Digital set to release new, far-reaching statistics on national drinking at the end of January 2022. Some insight can be gleaned from existing reports. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), since 2005 teetotalism has steadily increased among those aged 16 to 44. And as read from a 2017 ONS survey, although 16 to 24-year-olds are less likely to have drunk alcohol in the past week, when they do drink, they are more likely to drink at high levels, or binge drink. This can be dangerous, costly and life-threatening. Meanwhile 2020 saw the highest number of alcohol-specific deaths in England and Wales since records began in 2001. There were 7,423 alcohol-specific deaths in 2020, up 20% on the previous year.
Of course, alcohol harm stretches beyond physical health, and can be both a symptom of trauma and the cause of real interpersonal problems. As recently published research from Alcohol Change UK shows, around one in five drinkers have drunk to cope with relationship problems in the latter half of 2021, or because of an argument with a family member (20%). A similar proportion of us – 19% – have struggled to socialise without alcohol. All of which can have serious consequences for our mental wellbeing. It's these problems – often uncaptured by national health statistics – that truly indicate the scale of alcohol harm in the UK.
So why do such problems exist and what can we do about it? For those of us who feel like we’re overdoing it, when does problem drinking become addiction? And on the flip side, for those of us who've overdone it a bit this Christmas, is it okay to just forgive ourselves and move on?
For Holmes, the big problem with problem drinking is the stigma around it. "If people feel stigmatised, they don't tell anyone they've got a problem – and they don't get help. And that's disastrous," she says, arguing for a genuine acceptance, openness and understanding for anyone who might be experiencing issues with alcohol. "So whether it's that they're too frightened to tell their employer that they need time off to go and get some support for their alcohol consumption, whether they're not telling the family, whether it's children of alcohol-dependent parents not telling their teachers, it's essential that we get past this unsophisticated kind of thinking. Stigma kills."
There's even an unconscious kind of stigma inscribed on each bottle: "Drink Responsibly." "This means everything, and nothing," says Holmes. "If you interrogated what it actually means to 'drink responsibly', it could mean anything. Drink within your budget; drink within the number of calories you wanted to have this week. Does it mean you're not drinking on your own? Does it mean you're not committing violent offences? Or does it mean that you're drinking within the chief medical officer's guidelines, not regularly more than 14 units a week because alcohol causes certain types of cancer? And even if we do fall for that messaging, we fall into the trap of dividing drinkers into 'responsible' and 'irresponsible', and miss an opportunity to talk to people wherever they're at."
And so this week, whether you're releasing the Christmas tension of being at the in-laws' with a deserved gin and tonic or you're experiencing the vivid dreams and sugar cravings of Dry Jan week one – we've got you. Sit back and read the different viewpoints, understanding that whatever your relationship with alcohol, you're not alone.