Updated: Jul 24
Individuation and drinking culture among young people
Today’s post features an interview with Henry Yeomans, a Professor of Criminology at the University of Leeds and Laura Fenton, a Research Associate at the University of Sheffield. Their work focuses around contemporary alcohol culture and regulation in Europe.
The two, along with the University of Kent’s Adam Burgess, recently authored the article “‘More options…less time’ in the ‘Hustle Culture’ of ‘Generation Sensible’: Individualization and Drinking Decline Among 21st Century Young Adults,” which appeared in the British Journal of Sociology. Find out more about their work in this interview.
Please tell readers a little bit about yourselves.
Laura: I was born in Canada to American and British parents, and first came to the UK as a teenager. British drinking culture caught my attention right away! After returning to Toronto to study sociology, I came back to the UK in my twenties and not long after started PhD research on the place of alcohol in women’s day-to-day lives across time and generations. I’m currently working on the Youth Drinking in Decline project at the University of Sheffield, and on the Austerity and Altered Life-Courses project at the University of Manchester.
Henry: I first became interested in the study of alcohol in 2005 when something of a moral panic erupted about binge drinking in the U.K. As someone who went out drinking regularly in those days, I found it really peculiar to see the drinking culture in which I was socialised being so roundly problematized by politicians, journalists and others. Plus, the nightmarish descriptions of the night-time economy which they trawled out seemed a long way from my (mostly very enjoyable) experiences. I wrote a masters dissertation about where these denunciatory moral tropes come from, and my interests grew from there.
What motivated your team to write this article?
Much of the motivation came from simple curiosity. The decline in drinking is an interesting trend that, in Britain at least, runs counter to many people’s perceptions. We tend to assume that the “drink problem” is always getting worse but, in terms of consumption levels, it has been falling since the early 2000s. We also tend to assume that young people are amongst the heaviest drinkers and, while that may have been true at different points in the past, their consumption has, in the UK at least, declined more quickly than that of other age groups.
There has been a surge of academic interest in this trend in the last 5 years and quantitative researchers working with national datasets have led the charge. While they have produced some really good work, it became clear that we do not yet have a full explanation for why overall drinking is declining or for the especially sharp fall in young people’s drinking. We felt some qualitative research was needed to help make sense of these puzzling, ongoing changes.
The article also builds on some of our previous work. Notably, Laura’s PhD investigated three generations of British women’s life histories with alcohol — their “drinking biographies.” The youngest generation were born in the early 1990s and so were part of the decline although this was not explored in the thesis. So, for Laura, this project was a good opportunity to pick up from where she had dropped off; that is, to follow the story through with people born shortly after the youngest participants in her earlier work.
Explain your article in a way that a non-specialist audience could understand.
We conducted focus groups and a survey, basing our findings on primarily qualitative analysis. We used Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim’s idea of individualization as a lens through which to look at generational differences and change. We found that young people today (‘Generation Z’) have a wide range of choices over leisure activities and an extended adolescence provides enhanced opportunities to enjoy these. But greater freedom comes with intensified pressure too. Leisure activities have to be squared with acutely felt pressures to perform educationally, manage health, develop a career and use time productively. These pressures result from macro social problems, but are experienced and navigated at the personal level. To put it another way, individualization — this duality of freedom and insecurity — transforms wider social problems, from climate change to economic precarity, into personal choices about drinking and other lifestyle activities. Indeed, we found our sample generally oriented against excessive consumption — often keen to avoid smoking, eating dairy, or driving polluting vehicles. So, the decline in young peoples’ drinking is, of course, a good news story in public health terms. But, it is also a symptom of acute individual pressure derived from ongoing socio-economic changes and the looming threat of environmental catastrophe.
Did you uncover anything particularly interesting or surprising during your work on this project?
The connection to climate change was certainly a surprise. Several of our participants talked about how they feel they are the last generation who will have a realistic chance of doing something about climate change before it is too late. This situation is contributing towards a huge sense of anxiety amongst young people and, for some, there was a sense that they simply don’t have time for going to the pub or other drinking activities as averting environmental catastrophe must take priority. For others, the connection is less direct and drinking little or no alcohol is one manifestation of a more generally restrained attitude towards consumption which is underpinned by anxieties about the environment, amongst other things.
Additionally, we found the distinction between drinker and non-drinker to be questionable. While we sought participants who drink little or no alcohol, the vast majority (67%) of those who came forward are actually occasional drinkers who do consume alcohol but only in small amounts on rare occasions. Some Australian research has found the same thing (Mugavin et al, 2020). It may be that the binary distinction between drinker and non-drinker is not an appropriate categorisation for the young people of Generation Z.
Finally, we also found it really interesting that some of our participants talked about how drinking or non-drinking are not really part of their identities. This was not hugely surprising as previous studies have found similar things, but they do not really seem to have been listened to as of yet. In the social sciences, drinking is often theorised in relation to either normative or transgressive identities; this binary seems to structure a lot of thinking on the topic. When non-drinkers say drinking is not important to their identities this tends to be interpreted as a defensive move designed to help them fit in socially with peers who do drink. But what if it is not a defensive tactic? What if drinking really isn’t that important to their identities?
What do you think is the most important takeaway from this article?
Using the theoretical framework of individualization proved to be really useful for us. It concentrated our attention on the inter-connections between freedom, pressure and control. It led us to the argument that occasional drinking or non-drinking are ways in which member of Generation Z try to manage the pressures they face and exert some control over their lives. We think this theory could be used to investigate wider changes in drinking habits that are occurring in different countries and potentially also amongst different age groups. We also think it could provide insights into a broader range of behavioural changes or lifestyles shifts that are occurring, such as the decline of smoking or the rise of vegetarianism and veganism.
Is this part of a larger project? What else are you working on?
The larger project is now complete. As well as our article in the British Journal of Sociology, we wrote a book chapter called ‘Risk, Control and Hyper-Moderation Drinking Amongst Generation Z’. It takes a closer look at how Generation Z understand moderation in drinking and how these understandings affect their consumption habits (or non-consumption habits). It features in an excellent edited collection called Alcohol, Age, Generation and the Life Course published by Palgrave earlier this year.
We are currently sketching out a follow-in project. Our existing project ended up focusing on drinking by university students and that introduced a certain middle-class bias to our sample. We are interested in developing a project that looks more closely at drinking amongst working class young people. We intend to concentrate upon those in paid work or certain forms of apprenticeship and see if the same conclusions, around pressure and control, apply. It’s early days but we’re quite excited about where this one could lead.
Anything else you’d like to share?
One loose end for us remains the connection between non-drinking and other forms of non-consumption. More and more people seem to apply ethical rules to what they consume by, for example, avoiding meat or dairy, minimising the extent they fly or drive a car, or by boycotting products and services provided by corporations who harm people, animals or the environment in some way. We suspect there is a link between these things – a general orientation away from excessive consumption and towards constraint as determined by ethical choice. More research on these links is needed.