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My generation drank to quell our self-loathing. Gen Z is admirably tough and teetotal | Zoe Williams

My first job out of university was on reception at some blue-chip company full of (probably) terrible suits, but that didn’t matter because the only person who ever spoke to me was the other receptionist, and she was great. She had this kid who was a rascal, and one day the police called to say he’d been nicked for some rascally behaviour. “To his credit,” they said, “he doesn’t have any previous convictions.” She replied: “Well, give him a chance – he’s only 13.”

Her voice popped into my head the other day when I was worrying about my daughter, and how non-alcohol-curious she is. Well, give her a chance – she’s only 13. But my nieces are the same way, and they’re older. My sister and I decided a while ago that this was our doing: they’d taken one look at us, or to be accurate, a million looks at us, and decided the Aperol bounce wasn’t for them. And while I’m almost immune to parental guilt, I did feel fantastically bad about the idea that I might, just by enjoying it too much, have put my kids off alcohol.

The drop-off in drinking among 16- to 25-year-olds is striking. Festivals have to order alcohol-free lager to cater to the new demographic, which is just peculiar – if you never got a taste for regular lager, why not drink squash? Gen Z are more likely to be teetotal than any other age group; if they drink at all, they start at a later age than we did, they consume smaller amounts and less frequently. This is not just the UK – it’s Europe-wide. Realistically, this cannot have been caused by me and my sister.

The social-media explanation is plausible, if depressing. It’s an era where everything is recorded and nothing gets forgotten; where half the point of doing anything at all is to take a picture of yourself doing it. What goes on tour no longer stays on tour; indeed, every tiny event of the tour could be burned into the retina of a future employer.


I think the impossibility of forgetting has got into their bloodstream, and now they think of their own brains as data storage, from which it would be catastrophic if anything were to go missing, on par with losing your phone or accidentally wiping your hard drive. Some early-adopter teetotal twentysomethings were interviewed about their choice, and one phrase came up again and again: they wanted to be able to remember the night before. It seemed so alarmist, such an overstatement: you can usually remember most of it, and what you can’t will float back to you over the course of the day, until it disappears forever in a week and a half; plus, it won’t all have been massively consequential. If you lose an hour of your best friend telling you about the jacket she can’t decide whether to get in black or brown, and also that she loves you, is that the end of the world?

I think of all the situations I would have found completely untenable, as a young person, without several cans of Tennent’s. Festivals, for sure – there’s nowhere to hide except the tent you haven’t put up correctly; parties, specifically the unique, exquisite awkwardness of feeling so visible, so conspicuous, so out of place, and yet at the same time, so irrelevant, so blank, so entirely uninteresting; university, which is as bad as a party – all the strangers, all the performance anxiety, except you have to live there; the first forays into work, as bad as university except now you don’t know how a fax machine works and that’s your entire job. It takes years to break the curse of self-consciousness. Have Gen Z found a way that isn’t drinking? It’s pretty clear they’re not the snowflakes – we are. They’re made of iron filings.

Zoe Williams

Published: 2023-06-20 07:00:33


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