Generation X are heavy, risky drinkers. Will anything ever persuade us to stop?

·13-min read

My first job in journalism was editing a free magazine called Rasp. In 1995, we ran a competition for a year’s supply of Two Dogs lemon brew, the Australian alcopop. Two Dogs tried to send us 365 bottles, and I negotiated them up to 1,000, indignant that a bottle a day could constitute a “supply”. It is the only time I’ve ever played hard ball. Nobody entered the competition because we didn’t have any readers, and nor did we have any staff. The two of us, me and the designer, drank the whole lot in the space of two months. A constant drip feed of 4.5% ABV, all day. If anybody asked – there was a much larger team upstairs running TNT, a freesheet for expat Australians – we’d say it was a British tradition, going back to medieval times, when workers would sip ale because of the contaminated water supply. “But medieval ale would have been more like 0.5%,” they might have protested, except they were also constantly drunk, and at lunchtime we’d all go to the pub, 60 people in crocodile formation marching down the street, like a misbegotten nursery outing.

So the cliche of the drunken journalist happens to be true, but in the early 90s it was also true of teachers. Dave Lawrence, 56, co-author of Scarred for Life, of which more shortly, remembers his teacher training: “There was a pub across the road and at lunchtime, all the teachers would head over there, and all afternoon they would reek of booze.” It wasn’t really sectoral – this was just generation X. Colin Angus, a senior research fellow in the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group, is 39. He’s not generation X, which is usually defined as those born between 1965 and 1980. But in his pre-academic career in electrical wholesaling, “Everyone was always talking about the good old days of long, boozy lunches.”

I packed that magazine with drinking antics: the music reviews, the vox pops, the features. It was all basically about booze, except once I did something on what was the most reliable contraception for people who were rarely sober (spoiler: not the mini-pill). On the back page, I gave my dad a column called The Old Imbiber, and even though we pulled in no readers that we were looking for, some expat Australians did read Rasp, and any time he went into a pub with Aussie bar staff, he would be recognised, and they would invite him behind the bar to pose with his mouth under an optic. It tickled him like a trout.

That was just some anecdata for you: in generation X, we never felt as though we were drinking more than our parents, because they drank a hell of a lot, and were relatively free of ancillary taboos, such as drink-driving. As for hard facts, “there’s a chart that shows the proportion of each generation that drinks five or more nights a week,” says Bobby Duffy, the professor of public policy and director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, as well as the author of The Perils of Perception: Why We’re Wrong About Nearly Everything. “One-third of the prewar generation drank five nights a week. It’s 0.2% of generation Z [those born between about 1995 and 2012].” It’s one of the strongest cohort effects he can name: “It’s almost religious.” But within that very steady downward trajectory, there are complications. Drinking five times a week doesn’t necessarily constitute harmful drinking. “In terms of risky drinking, there’s a really strong Office for National Statistics chart, a bulge going through the age range that more or less tracks generation X.”

A typically quiet night out in the 1980s.
A typically quiet night out in the 1980s. Photograph: Homer Sykes/Alamy

For his part, Angus, is careful to preface his own research with its limits: “HMRC knows exactly how much alcohol is being sold, so you can easily get a per capita amount of litres of pure alcohol a year. We know that peaked in 2004, but if you want to know who was doing the drinking, that’s trickier, because HMRC doesn’t care.” Researchers rely on self-reported figures, which tend to exclude the very heavy drinkers, who aren’t interested in your surveys, but also downplay everyone’s drinking, since they ask about a “typical” week, and most people don’t look back on their binges and think, “Yes, that’s absolutely classic me”. “If we add up how much everyone says they drink, you get to 60% of the amount of alcohol we know is sold,” Angus concludes, “And that’s quite good – there are other countries where it’s more like 30%.”

So the steady climb up to that 2004 peak poses the question: was every generation drinking more, or were we looking at a cohort of very heavy drinkers? One overlooked feature is that it was mainly driven by wine-drinkers, who in 1950 were so rare they were basically weirdos, and 50 years later were, unit for unit, matching beer drinkers. Over a shorter period, 30 years, the pub-to-home ratio flipped; at the start of the 70s, 70% of drinking was done in pubs, by the early 00s, 70% was done at home. “It’s not untrue,” Angus says cautiously, “to say men tend to drink beer in pubs and women tend to drink wine at home.” So the rise in drinking seems to centre on gen X women, or, to give us our proper title, ladettes. But ignoring gender for the time being, why that gen X bulge in the first place?

Many of us will remember the 90s for the liberalisation – regulatory and commercially – of alcohol. Supermarkets embarked on aggressive price reductions – wine-makers to this day regard UK grocery behemoths with a combination of contempt and fear – as the market for home drinking grew, while later in the decade, the brakes were lifted on pub opening hours. There was a lot of “doom and gloom in alcohol policy circles”, Angus recalls, “when Tony Blair said, ‘I’m going to relax licensing laws and we’re magically going to get a European cafe culture of drinking.’ We were never going to acquire another country’s drinking culture.”

In the event, hardly anywhere took up the 24-hour drinking capability that New Labour allowed. However, everything felt very easy – getting served whatever your age, getting a drink whatever the time, everything as cheap as chips. Most of this is also true now (in England, at least; Scotland in 2018 and Wales in 2020 embarked on minimum pricing), however, and millennial drinking patterns are very different.

To understand the culture, you need to go back to the 70s and 80s, formative years for generation X. Dave Lawrence and Stephen Brotherstone are authors of Scarred for Life (volume three is out soon). On paper, you might expect this compendium of the TV and media themes of the time to be very nostalgic and affectionate. But that’s because you don’t remember the time. The crushing sense of economic decline was a constant on TV – Brotherstone flags up the documentary Tees Street Isn’t Working, made in 1985, about a street in Birkenhead on which not one person had a job, except the guy who worked in the Jobcentre.

Lawrence remembers his own experience of job-seeking in the mid-80s laughingly: “I got a letter back saying, ‘We had so many applications for this job that we had to do a lucky dip to send the forms. Unfortunately, you were not lucky.’” The popular memory of the 80s is neon and Bucks Fizz, but the reality was the feeling that nothing and nobody would work again, waiting for the world to end. And let’s not forget the nuclear threat, which permeated not just popular culture – as a storyline in everything from Judge Dredd to Only Fools and Horses – but mainstream education. “We had a geography lesson where we learned what the damage would be if a bomb dropped on Liverpool city centre,” says Lawrence. “We all knew which concentric circle we’d be in.” Brotherstone remembers having his first panic attack about nuclear war at 13.

Once rare, wine-drinkers now match beer-drinkers almost unit for unit.
Once rare, wine-drinkers now match beer-drinkers almost unit for unit. Photograph: Paula Solloway/Alamy

I used to think this was just me and other people whose mothers were quite Greenham-y. But it was all of us, and then our sexual awakenings bisected the Aids crisis, which was portrayed as a black death that the sexually active pretty much deserved. We came of drinking age, then, with an understandable degree of nihilism which tipped into the carefree 90s. A generation which had abandoned hope had its cares lifted apparently at random; the quest for oblivion met an age in which everything was fine and nothing mattered (remember post-irony?), and a fair amount of chaos ensued.

Enter third-wave feminism: I felt really strongly about this, and still do. A critical point of emancipation was that we weren’t the wimmins libbers of caricature, fighting the fight for other, oppressed women – we were fighting for ourselves, for the right to be delinquent, to be ungovernable. Chrissie Giles, the global health editor at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the presenter of the podcast Smoke Screen, compares the environment in which we grew up – she’s 41, I’m 48 – to “the temperance movement in the US. The good woman was a non-drinker who was a counterpoint to the man, who drank. A woman who drank to excess was mad, bad, sad. What was wrong with her?”

Sloughing that off was really fundamental to asserting a destiny, one in which you weren’t the designated driver to your legitimately pissed man, just as you weren’t the gatekeeper to sex, you had your own sexual desires, which were also sometimes unmanageable; one in which you didn’t just exist to manage men’s excesses or fall prey to them. It was a flashpoint in the fissure between libertine and rule-bound feminism, occurring in tandem – not by accident, I don’t think – with the exuberant ladette culture embodied by Sara Cox and Zoë Ball.

“‘Ladette,’” says Giles, “is not a shortening of ‘lady’. It’s a lengthening of ‘lad’.” If the choice was between male agency and female restraint, many of us chose agency. There was a moral panic around female drunkenness at the time – there was a famous shot of a girl passed out on a bench, Angus recalls. “She’s known affectionately among alcohol research circles as Bench Girl. She was used to illustrate stories about alcohol use for about 15 years,” he says. “From an alcohol harm perspective, that was never the problem. The problem was middle-aged people quietly drinking too much at home.”

Simultaneously, this emancipation became a marketing opportunity: pubs – which used to be hallowed, male spaces, steamed-up windows and fag-burnt carpets, where women were stared at – became tailored to women, with sofas and big windows. It was win-win; the All Bar Ones and Fox and Firkins didn’t put men off, since they liked to be places where women were. Who knew? A syncopated change happened in advertising; Carol Emslie, the substance-use lead at Glasgow Caledonian University, describes it as a “move from sexualising women to sell alcohol to men, to associating alcohol with sophistication, empowerment, female friendship” (Emslie runs a social media campaign #dontpinkmydrink. After she mentions it, I notice this everywhere: pink gin, pink prosecco, even drinks that aren’t pink are packaged in pink). If emancipation through alcohol is a real thing, so is female solidarity: Giles makes a subtle, sweet point. “We’ve all been in the toilets of a club, and someone will be like ‘are you alright? Have you got someone with you?’ That feeling of being looked after. I’m not sure how that is for men.”

There’s one other factor: the odiousness of comparison. Or, to put that more simply, generation X was never that extreme, it’s just the millennials, or generation sensible, are making us look bad. They drink less overall, and are more likely to renounce drinking altogether. Generation Z drink less still, though arguably, give them a chance: the oldest of them are in their early 20s and the youngest only 13. Internationally, the differences are less stark because the peaks were earlier – in France and Italy, drinking peaked in the 60s, in Spain, the 70s, various countries hit a high in the 80s. It was quite unusual to hit a peak in the early 00s.

Zoë Ball and Sara Cox, seen by many as the embodiment of ladette culture.
Zoë Ball and Sara Cox, seen by many as the embodiment of ladette culture. Photograph: PA Images/Alamy

Why subsequent generations have quit drinking is a question for another day, although Melissa Oldham, 30, a research fellow at UCL working in alcohol and tobacco research, will kick us off: “One explanation is that there’s been a change in attitudes, which might in part be a reaction to previous heavy-drinking generations.” There are hypotheses around economics and habituation – the student years are not as carefree when you’re heavy with debt, so people may not build the habits of binge drinking, which they then won’t take into adulthood. One other thing Oldham notes: “People are so cynical: they say millennials are just taking drugs or smoking weed instead. But that’s not the case: we’ve seen declines in all drug use.”

Whether we were scarred by Thatcherism, powered by emancipation, hardened by our habits, or all of these things and more, there’s no question that the heavy drinkers of generation X are now deeply out of fashion and getting further from vogue all the time. But will this actually change our behaviour? The impact of social media – TikTok and Instagram in particular are havens of clean living, stacked with temperate role models and slogans proselytising sobriety – is more complicated than monkey see, monkey do. Even if it weren’t for echo chambers (my feeds, for instance, don’t feature much physical purity, since I’m mainly on Twitter, with the rest of my generation), Oldham counsels, “the findings of social media are so mixed that you can’t tell a lot from them.” Emslie, who notes that “putting up the price of alcohol in Scotland reduced the number of deaths”, is confident that reducing marketing also has an effect, and a three-pronged approach would work. Action from government, from organisations like the Scottish women’s football association, which won’t accept ads from alcohol companies, and from grass roots campaigns like the Soberistas might shunt us to a place where we’re questioning whether we “really want to associate alcohol with every single aspect of our lives”.

But although the case is made strongly and often against risky drinking, I’m not sure, at our great age, it would be possible for nudge impacts to denormalise regular, enthusiastic social drinking.

Fashions change. But can we?

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