During lockdown many people found comfort in the arms of Netflix, baking, and home workouts but they also found comfort in drinking excessive amounts of alcoholic beverages.
While the average amount of units consumed across the country decreased during lockdown, 36% of individuals began to drink more, according to a self-reported study of 1,346 people by the University of Cambridge.
The Cambridge study also found that older generations were more likely to drink compared to younger. This was especially notable if they were in households with children during lockdown. They would consume between 0.54 and 2.02 units more on average than before the pandemic.
The lifestyle of a 20-year-old who lives alone is likely to be vastly different to that of a 45-year-old with children, especially when lockdown is considered. It is understandable why parents may have turned to alcohol while younger generations cut it out entirely.
However, it is not just lockdown that pushed this divide. Alcohol statistics for England showed that in 2019, over half of people had drunk alcohol in the previous week. With a large number of over 44-year-olds reportedly drinking on five or more days out of that week.
This is compared to only 2% of men and 2% of women between 16 to 24-years-old drinking more than five days a week. This fits in with a trend that the drinking habits of many young people seem to be reducing.
The percentage of 18 to 24-year-olds who do not drink has climbed to 26% from 14% in January 2021, according to a survey by YouGov. Binge-drinking culture is still a massive problem for many young people as most social settings, particularly during university, seem to include alcohol.
Older adults may drink regularly, for example having a glass of wine with dinner, but not go on large binges as often. Contrastingly, young people are encouraged to spend their free time socialising in settings that promote heavy drinking.
However, it appears that many are fighting against this societal norm. If young people stop drinking altogether this could have ripple effects across the whole of the UK, as setting good habits now can impact the rest of your life.
What is the harm in binge drinking?
Binge-drinking is where someone exceeds the recommended alcohol limit, therefore getting drunk, in a short space of time. This can mean between six to eight units of alcohol depending on your gender. Other factors such as your age, weight, and how often you drink can affect your overall tolerance.
Dr Deborah Lee, of Dr Fox Pharmacy, said: “Unfortunately, the UK has a poor reputation with alcohol.” She cited a 2019 alcohol survey, in which British drinkers admitted to drinking more alcohol, and on more occasions than the 35 other countries in the study.
Excessive alcohol consumption can impact every part of your body from putting pressure on kidney function to an increase in the risk of breast cancer.
For most people, the main complaint when you have had a night of excessive drinking is a hangover. This is caused by dehydration along with side effects of alcohol such as disturbed sleep, gastric issues, inflammation, and anxiety.
The UK’s reliance on alcohol to have a good time results in a pattern of behaviour that can be hard to shake. “If you start to rely on alcohol to help you cope with social situations, this can result in you feeling increasingly anxious if alcohol isn’t available,” said Dr Lee.
“Drinking can also lead to anger, stress, low self-esteem and an increase in self-harm and suicide. There are ways of dealing with all these negative outcomes that are far preferable to continuing to drink alcohol,” she added.
On top of casual usage throughout the UK, some people become addicted to alcohol. Alcoholism can come in two forms; psychological addiction and physical alcohol dependence. The latter can lead to physical withdrawal symptoms such as sweating, shaking and vomiting and in severe cases can be fatal.
Are young people dependent on alcohol?
Young people appear to be the exception in this cycle of drinking culture as almost a quarter of people aged between 18-24 are now teetotal.
Dr Lee said that along with the growing pressure on finances for all, the boom in ‘cafe culture’ among young people and the internet lowering the need for pubs and clubs, young people are also “more aware of the dangers of excessive consumption of alcohol”.
Rose, 22, who wished to remain anonymous, is a teetotal student after suffering from bouts of alcoholism during the first lockdown. She worked as a delivery driver for a local pub during March 2020 and found she had ready access to alcohol as a result of this.
“I don’t feel like I’m someone that can do things in moderation, I can’t just have one thing,” she said. Her drinking slipped from casual to excessive during the lockdowns. Stress pushed Rose to turn to the pub as a safe haven. She said: “I think alcohol was very much tied to an emotion.”
The use of alcohol to alleviate the day’s stress is commonplace in the UK, we often say “I need a drink” to express that it has been a hard day. Our reliance on alcohol as a given part of socialising was something Rose was concerned about when returning to university.
“I was quite nervous before I came [to university], because when I was 18 if somebody wasn’t drinking, I would have thought who is this weirdo?” she said. Some people even went as far as to cut off contact with Rose after she explained that she didn’t drink, both in romantic and platonic relationships.
She is not alone in this response. Graduate Kirsten Jones, 23, is also a non-drinker who has never drunk more than the occasional sip at family gatherings. She said: “As the years have gone by and I’ve gotten older people seem to take me more seriously. After the first year of university, it became more accepted and no-one questioned me beyond initial surprise.”
Kirsten avoided clubs and other spaces where drinking would be expected, although she does not feel she missed out on anything in doing so. “Enjoying time with my friends does not depend on being drunk in a dimly lit room where you can’t even hear yourself think, let alone what the other person is saying to you,” she said.
25-year-old Charlotte Mitchell, an NHS paramedic, said she has always been questioned for not drinking. “I often just tell people I’m the ‘designated driver’ as this appears to get them off my back without too much questioning.”
For these women, lying about why you’re not drinking was common in the early days of their teetotal lifestyle in order to avoid pressure and disdain from others. For people like Kirsten who chose not to drink, it is a mere annoyance or irritation to be brushed off. But for Rose, these situations upset her and can be a source of shame and embarrassment.
“It’s not that I’m ashamed of drinking alcohol-free drinks, it’s that I’m ashamed that I can’t drink alcoholic drinks,” she said, “I don’t want to be ashamed of it even though I am a bit.”
Are we binge-drinking less?
Rose found that away from her drinking friends there was a community waiting to welcome her. She said that she had met large groups of university students who were teetotal.
“I don’t know whether that was around before and I just didn’t see it because I wasn’t a part of that community at all,” she said.
Kirsten believes that younger people are looking at the drinking habits of older generations and deciding whether they want to follow in their footsteps, helped in part by the increase in wellness and health education.
She explained how often university is a micro-climate of drinking “where it’s acceptable to go out on a Tuesday night and turn up still drunk to a lecture”. Once you leave that bubble it becomes a lot easier to push aside the pressure.
This is a slow cultural shift brought to the forefront by the pandemic. Lockdown allowed people the space to assess their lives and make changes they may not have had we not stopped. Some reached for the bottle, while others took the opportunity to leave it behind.
We are more aware of the risks of excessive alcohol consumption over long periods of time. Well-being, be that mental or physical, is also more prominent in the public consciousness. While abandoning alcohol is not exclusive to younger people, it is certainly a movement with them at the forefront.
Words by Danni Scott
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