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Sober curious – will it fly?

In my early 20s [i.e a while ago], I enjoyed a drink. Or several. And then several more.

My youth was, in a word, a journey … and alcohol came along for the ride. Socialising that didn’t revolve around caffeine revolved around “getting on the piss”: my mates and I held movie nights with cheap bubbles, drained our bank accounts making birthday cocktails, and bemoaned our love lives over too much discount rosé. To awaken the next morning with a pseudo-migraine was a badge of honour.

A typical rite of passage. And one that more of today’s 20-somethings are leaving in the dust.

Global research shows young people are drinking less often, and in lesser quantities, than previous generations. In 2019, a UK study found 16 to 25-year-olds were the most likely to be teetotal, with 26 per cent not drinking. Recent Australian research discovered 44 per cent of 18-24-year-olds had reduced their alcohol intake throughout the pandemic. In 2021, the US market value of non-alcoholic beverages stood at a cool $10 billion.

Even in Aotearoa, infamous for its “beers with the boys” culture, youth binge drinking has declined since 2001.

Experts cite several factors for the “sober curious” movement. Some point to the economy: Three years into covid, the Gen Z cohort is graduating into an unstable labour market and a looming recession. Consecutive boozy weekends are a luxury many cannot justify. Competition for jobs is stiff – and employers know their way around social media. My generation thought nothing of posting “hilarious” drunken selfies on Facebook. Now, said selfies could cost you a paycheque.

The digital landscape has also increased awareness of alcohol-related harm. With more information at their fingertips, Gen Z is better-versed in mental health, addiction and self-care – and how alcohol relates to that. A 2019 survey of Gen Z Americans found 41 per cent of respondents associate alcohol with “vulnerability”, “anxiety” and “abuse”. Online spaces dedicated to sobriety are also gaining popularity – including the #sober community on TikTok, generating billions of views.

Young people are also conscious of their physical health – thanks to “wellness” culture and the proliferation of lifestyle bloggers, we’re hyper-aware of the chemical compounds in our food.

I have mixed feelings. The online wellness movement is notorious for fixation on appearance, peddling of falsehoods, and correlation with heightened food anxiety. It has already demonised carbohydrates and dairy – does alcohol deserve the same? Alcohol can be enjoyed responsibly – and surely access to nuanced information is preferable to influencer-driven alarmism?

What is more heartening about the sober curious movement is the decreasing stigma around going alcohol-free. Being a non-drinker is no longer a one-way ticket to social pariah-hood. If someone dared to abstain from alcohol on my university campus, they were “obviously” on antibiotics, or pregnant – and if they were male, their manhood was called into question. Nowadays, students overseas are embracing coffee culture, requesting alcohol-free accommodation, and attending sober raves – and, in turn, rejecting peer pressure and toxic masculinity. It’s refreshing to see.

Will more young Kiwis go in the same direction? Stranger things have happened.

Alcohol and its safety is a big conversation. Scientists have different things to say on the matter – and what people do with that information is up to them. But, it is encouraging to see young people prioritising mental health, practising self-awareness, and creating non-judgemental, inclusive spaces for their peers. Teetotal or otherwise, those are worthy goals to pursue.

Young people just may leave this world in better shape than they found it. I’ll raise a virgin mimosa to that.

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall is the editor of the Wairarapa Midweek. She has been a journalist for the past 10 years, and has a keen interest in arts, culture, social issues, and community justice.

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