By Brett Templeton and Garret Cummings
Jan 2020

The holiday season is behind us. Jolliness and bonhomie are no longer mandatory; festive excess feels like a painful memory. 

Office party was followed by irritating ‘have to see you before Christmas’ get together, followed by ‘down the pub’ followed by drinks this and party that, with Christmas Eve in your old local with your mates from home who were back for Christmas. You maybe popped open the prosecco over breakfast on the day itself so by the time lunch was served you were able to cope with Uncle Ronald’s endless supply of #metoo-inappropriate jokes. 

That was then. 

Alcohol is central to many cultures. It forms a key part of many social rituals – and is even part of some of our most sacred rites, like Holy Communion. Every rite of passage: birthdays, new job, finishing exams, getting engaged, weddings – all come with the assumption that (over)consumption of alcohol is an integral part of things in many (but of course not all) societies.

In Europe, possibly the booziest continent on Earth, anthropologists are able to distinguish between two different types of alcohol culture: “integrated” drinking culture and “non-integrated” drinking culture. 

“Integrated” drinking cultures are predominantly Southern European ones, where an alcoholic drink can be included at every stage of the day, but the quantity consumed is controlled by fierce social vigilance and opprobrium. When I moved to Spain, I was surprised to see workers have a carajillo (coffee with rum or brandy) at 8am before work. But they’d only have one. Then one glass of wine at lunch. Then one bottle of beer, maybe two, after work, with tapas, and a glass of wine or two at dinner. They spent their days faintly tiddly.

Contrast this with Northern European “non-integrated” drinking cultures. In these, we’re horrified that someone might have a brandy before work, because alcohol is not woven into daily life. But once tools are downed, it’s a free-for-all. Alcohol means leisure means fun and even if it gets messy, that’s an anecdote for everyone the next day, with the foolproof get-out clause “Yeah mate, I was pissed”.

These days, many of us who have grown up in the “get on it, it’s all a laugh” booze culture would appear to be having second thoughts. Health advice has shifted from “a bit is OK” to “any alcohol is potentially harmful”. The decline of previous constraints like community, religion and a sense of social propriety, which fuelled a generation of hedonistic misbehaviour, have been reined in by new constraints: cost, image, and ubiquitous social media, which means that our transgressions are no longer anecdotes within our group of friends, but clips uploaded to social media for the world to judge and shame us. 

More than that. It’s just not cool. 

The younger generation just don’t seem to be that interested in getting wasted; particularly those privileged to live in the world’s great cities. Since the global financial crisis, the expectation of incessant growth, of more is better, has run aground. Meagre growth, a competitive job environment and, in the UK, much higher university tuition fees which have shifted student culture to be more consumer- and results-focused, have led to a much less carefree student environment, where there is simply less time to go wild and spend time recovering.

This cultural shift isn’t solely among the young. In older age groups, the colonisation of leisure time by work, enabled by smartphones and the expectation of being available to check in during leisure time, has increasingly limited the possibility for behaviour that stops you being “on”. So many have a ‘side hussle’ that they may need to work on later, or, indeed, a client who feels free to email at 11.30pm. 

Another key trend involved in this cultural shift is the focus on health. Science was agnostic about drinking for a long time, but it finally came off the fence with a Cochrane study which concluded that any form of alcohol is bad for health, and the more you drink, the worse your long term health outcomes.

A crucial element is the rise of social media and with it a certain sense of obligation to present your best self to the world. Behaviours that among earlier generations would have led to you being derided as an absurd narcissist are now mainstream. Brands used to mean key mass consumption products; then they became celebrities (“personal branding”) and local shops; now, every single person on the planet is their own brand, curated on social media. On Facebook, Instagram and Twitter we have to present a face to the world that is every bit as constrained and calculated as any member of 18th or 19th Century European aristocracy. One ill-considered tweet from 2011 is enough to ruin a nascent political career or indeed get one fired and used as an example of poor conduct.

In a world where an admittedly pretty-but-dim toff can be booted off Love Island with 45,000 people signing a petition because they don’t like his Instagram pictures (quite rightly; the lad murders rare animals), then landing face-down in the gutter in Canal Street is no longer a private matter. 

Given this cultural environment, it’s hardly surprising that excess alcohol consumption is increasingly frowned upon. Financially, socially, culturally, it’s increasingly Not Worth It. Many of us who have quite happily been getting in our cups thinking it is consequence free are now reconsidering our behaviour and contemplating cutting down.

As we live in a digital culture where we are able to announce our whims to everyone and also tap in to trends individually, inspired by thoughts and ideas and movements we see online, trends in culture, ideas, what Richard Dawkins originally coined the word “memes” to mean, spread quickly.

One very successful one has been the rise of temporary abstinence from alcohol. The rise of the “sober-curious” movement, a term coined by author Ruby Warrington, has spread through social media and fomented an array of memes, trends, cultural ideas, apps, businesses, coaching and… jumping on a trend and pushing it firmly towards the mainstream.

An Australian non-profit called Life Education started promoting the idea of “Ocsober” in 2010. The pun had sporadic takeup but was given a major boost when the Macmillan cancer charity launched their sponsored “Sober October” in 2013. Around the same time, the NGO Alcohol Concern started to promote the idea of a “Dry January” to atone for and recuperate from the excesses of the festive period. The idea mushroomed. 4,350 signed up in the first year, growing to 50,000 by 2015 and an astonishing 3.2 million by 2018.

A French alcohol awareness charity AddictAide recently made a fearsome point about the glamorisation of alcohol consumption on social media by creating an Instagram account for Louise Delage, a captivatingly chic 25-year-old, always pictured with a cocktail in her hand. After garnering tens of thousands of followers and likes for her louche lifestyle, it was revealed that she was an actress, an invented character created to illustrate how the seductive image of booze can hide a darker secret: she was an alcoholic and her perfectly curated Insta life was full of signs of her alcoholism.

Dry January is probably an easier cultural fit in non-integrated drinking cultures. After the excess, a purge. That’s why Sober October has been more interesting as an idea, as it’s free-floating, a random month that happens to rhyme with “sober”, not fitting in with our calendar of excess and abnegation.

These monthly abstinences are symptomatic of a wider trend. Alcohol consumption is falling in many societies, led by the young, who feel most keenly the pressures of having to get ahead in societies where the social democratic ladder has been pulled up and they have to compete for everything.

There’s a wide range of apps, sites and businesses aiming to capitalise on the new sobriety. Apart from charities promoting Sober October or Dry January as a sponsorship and fundraising opportunity, sites like One Year No Beer, Drinkcoach and the like offer communities, support, and advice (for a price) for those looking to lay off the sauce for a while.

The consumer revolution of the 1980s and 90s was about excess. Extravagant consumption marked your position of success in a meritocracy that swept the old order aside. Consuming alcohol to excess was part of this: a test of Thatcherite-Reaganite stamina and manhood that marked you as a winner. In the UK, women started drinking pints unabashedly. Less was not more, less was a bore. 

The 90s were the apotheosis of this studied, careless excess. The New Lad and New Ladette ironically revelled in anti-intellectual “tits, pints and cars” abandon, epitomised by the hegemony of Loaded magazine and its bandwagon-jumping imitators at GQ and Esquire. 

In the sober, post crisis comedown, it’s the boomers and Gen X who cling to alcoholic excess while the young people clutch an artisanal cocktail on Insta that they may take three sips of and then abandon, because the likes for the look are a better high than the buzz from the booze.

This being 2019, of course there is a trend towards mindful drinking. No carefree abandon, knocking back the pints or shots in search of release, abandon, or whatever the hell successive generations have guzzled it for. Instead we’re encouraged to sip what we’re drinking, note the changes in our body, mind and mood as we consume our drinks, and focus on feeling the inebriation or mild intoxication as it spreads though us, as a yogi might observe the changes in thoughts and sensations that a meditation session would precipitate.

This trend towards sobriety is not merely anecdotal. A study involving nearly 10,000 young people in the UK found that the proportion of 16- to 24-year-olds who say they never drink alcohol rose from 18% in 2005 to 29% in 2015. The numbers who had never drunk alcohol rose from 9% to 17%. The amount of people who hadn’t had a drink in the last week rose from 35% to 50%, whilst the percentage who drank above recommended weekly limits fell from 43% to 28%, and those who had engaged in binge-drinking fell from 27% to 18%.

This is by no means UK-only – the same trend has been observed throughout Europe, North America and Australasia. The International Journal Of Drug Policy published a multi-country study in February 2019 with the following conclusions: “the cultural position of drinking may have changed among young people, so that drinking has lost its unquestioned symbolic power as a rite of passage into adulthood. There is less peer pressure to drink and more room for competing activities… the results of the paper suggest a hypothesis of the early maturation of young people as more individualized, responsible, reflective, and adult-like actors than in earlier generations.”

It would appear that young people are leading the way towards a new seriousness and a new sobriety. Their irresponsible elders have bequeathed them a climate crisis, political populism and a world that promises them less than their forbears for a lot more effort. For fans of Absolutely Fabulous, they are the Saffys to the older generation’s Edina Monsoons.

Boozy apathy has been replaced with sober seriousness. And those of us who grew up in earlier, more carefree and irresponsible generations are taking note. a drinks tray with whisky at the office, made famous by Mad Men, was considered normal until the Eighties, reflected in the popular series of the time. Breaks from alcohol would have been sneered at as “lightweight behaviour” a decade ago, but are now celebrated and sponsored. 

It would seem that these month-long sobrieties are often the first step for those of us raised in a culture where drinking alcohol to excess was a proof of valour, worth or masculinity, towards trying to break a habit that we’re conscious is not good for us. It gives us an excuse to say “no”. But it also permits us to keep indulging the excess. 

We would hypothesise that these abstinences are not so common among the young, who drink less. They are a feature of the 35+, who grew up in a culture of abundance and decadence, becoming conscious of their own mortality, and realising that being drunk and middle-aged or above is not a good look. 

We think that these Dry Januarys and Sober Octobers are a cultural crutch for the not-so-young to break the boozy habits they laid down in their youth. Getting wasted while the planet is on fire and Trump, Bolsonaro et al are in power is not cool. We need our wits about us these days, and the kids are showing us the way.

By Garret Cummings and Brett Templeton, Pluralthinking

Pluralthinking is an insight, brand thinking and cultural intelligence agency, based in London and Belfast. We work all over the world all the time. We’re also members of the Insight Leaders Collective.