Gen Z – The Generation of Sobriety?

Written by Dafydd Jones

Continuing in our mission to unearth the behavioural motivations that fuel Generation Z, RDSi have cast a lens over a particularly hot topic – alcohol consumption.  Are the 13 to 23-year olds of 2018 more sober than Generation X and Y, and their Millennial predecessors?  With conflicting reports littered throughout the media, it is difficult to come to any conclusion.  There are articles dubbing today’s teens as sanctimonious, yoga-going, superfood-loving, outspoken individuals who are far too self-aware to be anything but teetotal.  Yet, you only need to turn the page to find stories of kids regularly getting wasted on school grounds.

From eyeballing the statistics, there is no doubt that alcohol consumption has taken a nosedive.  For example, Berenberg reported that Gen Z’s are consuming more than 20% less per capita than their Millennial counterparts drank at their age.  Additionally, 64% of these teens and 20-year olds even predicted that as they grew older, they would drink alcohol less frequently than other generations do currently[1].

However, we should quickly dispel the myth that all Gen Z’s are overly sensible, abstinent and boring.  It seems unlikely that teenagers have catapulted from the rebellious depths of intoxicated frenzies to sitting in a circle, exchanging views on Brexit over nothing more than a mug of Matcha green tea.  Alcohol has not been totally rejected; it is still a prevalent feature of life for both teens and those in their early 20s.  Nevertheless, it is important to explore the reasons why the alcoholic beverage market is not resonating with this modern generation to the same extent as it has with previous ones.

A particularly salient motivation behind Gen Z’s drinking habits stems from a need to be risk averse from growing up through economic and political turbulence. This has as a result encouraged more conservative spending habits.  The rising prices of alcoholic beverages have therefore acted as a stinging repellent.  So, when they do choose to drink, staying at home with shop-bought beverages is seen to be much more attractive than heading to the Millennial infested, swanky cocktail bars and clubs. What was ‘pre-drinks’ (i.e. drinks before going out) – are now ‘THE drinks’ – becoming the focal point of today’s drinking culture.

A change of venue also elicits differential behavioural habits. Being in someone else’s home (or your own home for that matter) evokes a greater sense of self-awareness than the local pub or bar. Drinkers conscientiously try to avoid being a drunken, clumsy mess, creating spillage and ruining the furniture. Nobody thinks about the logistics of clearing up their intoxicated path of destruction at the pub! Ultimately, you are more likely to drink less than you would at a random club where anything goes.

In fact, being confined to the home actually suits such a generation, glued to tech.  The desires and needs of leisure are very much changing. There is now a need for diversity and constant stimulation that has left the clubbing scene looking “repetitive and boring”.

Inheriting a world of turmoil has not only encouraged less risky spending behaviours but has also precipitated today’s rhetoric that ‘knowledge is power’ and ‘health is wealth’. With the health and wellness movement stronger than ever, young people have become astutely aware of how their drinking habits will affect their long-term health. Their aspirational pragmatism has arisen from the drumming of hardcore anti-drug, PSHE programmes, in conjunction with the unlimited information at the fingertips of Gen-Z. Driven by health, this generation appear more avoidant of the undesirable health implications associated with alcohol.

Such knowledge has been substantiated by familial observation.  Exposure to the problematic drinking of their parents, or even a friend’s ‘bad experience’, is enough to scare the younger generation.

“The first time I went clubbing… my best friend got her drink spiked.  Luckily me and my other friend were sober, so we helped her out of the club.  She could barely walk and couldn’t even hold her own head…  it broke my heart to tell her what happened during the time she blacked out” – Gen Z respondent

Self-care and wellness are far greater priorities than the “buzz” that alcohol gives.

It certainly seems like the glamour once attached to intoxication has subsided.  Being a teen in the ‘90s, you worshipped Liam Gallagher, Kate Moss, Nirvana – all inseparable from drink.  Today, you look up to the likes of Little Mix and fitness influencers such as GraceFitUK.  Growing up in the early 2000s has exposed kids to celebrity confessions of alcoholism from “idols” including Demi Lovato.

“Seeing these stories can shape young people’s decisions when it comes to their own choices regarding alcohol” – Gen Z respondent

In fact, rappers such as Lil Yachty and Vince Staples have fuelled the so-called ‘Straight Edge’ Revolution.  These new icons have been promoting a movement of sobriety in which it is all right to say ‘no’.  This has further been aided by the feat of inclusivity that characterises Generation Z.  Alcohol is no longer a prerequisite of ‘cool’.

Social media has also played a disruptive role.  Smartphones have opened the door to a new form of mingling – ‘isolated socialising’ where Whatsapping or Snapchat group messaging is their way of ‘meeting up’ with friends.  Such reclusive interaction has replaced what would have been going out, decreasing opportunities for drinking.

The most influential aspect of social media however, derives from the vanity, self-consciousness and hysteria that is invoked by the documentation of Gen Z lives.  A constant need to keep your social media audiences posted has created a sense of paranoia.  Generation Zs friends are not just the typical group of friends – they are switched to an automatic setting, ready to quickly turn into paparazzi, chronicling moment-by-moment updates of theirs and their friends’ movements.  Today’s kids understand that everything is captured, instantaneously uploaded to social media, and has a minimal chance of total eradication if need be.  Learning from the mistakes of Millennials and their embarrassing Facebook days, Generation Z make a conscious effort to ensure that the same thing does not happen to them.  They appreciate that a video of themselves in a drunken state does not look good, especially when a culture of drink shaming is on the rise.  If you’re spilling things down you, and stumbling around a party, it’s likely to be circulated around Instagram.  Why get drunk when embarrassing photos might surface on social media?

Generation Zers have stated that they are too preoccupied to get ‘smashed’, not just with social media outlets, but also with keeping their heads above water in such a competitive landscape.  The subject of future stability feels futile to many; no ability to just stumble into a decent job, and an unpromising likelihood of ever owning a house. Everything is pressurised, time is precious, and motivations are directed towards reaping results.  This generation are consequently calibrated to prioritise productivity over getting drunk (and subsequently being miserably hungover).  Recent research found that 82% of young people in 2018 said that achieving impressive grades or being successful in their career was a top priority, versus the 68% who ranked being with their friends as most important[2].  University – once free – could easily be abandoned or treated as a party, now can land yourself with over £80,000 worth of debt.  With the financial burden alongside societal pressures, you’re likely to live your university years cautiously.  Teens today have too much to be doing to experiment and have fun with alcohol like previous generations have.

With greater access to education and more people looking to take the reigns over their health – these slumping consumption trends are likely to continue.  As a result, brands will have to adapt accordingly.  Having said that, the world is likely to be exposed to further chaos.  The desire for escapism is likely to still exist.  Alcohol remains associated with hedonism, and regardless of what happens, people still look to have a good time.


If Generation Z’s habits have left you wondering what this means for your brand, get in touch… we can help!