THE CIRCULAR

The Rise of Sobriety : Why younger generations are drinking less to live more 

In 2019, a regular day for me looked like the following: 1 hour commute to work, a lunchtime workout, leaving work at 6.30pm for drinks/dinner at 7.30-ish, returning home around 11pm – multiple times per week. 

Post-pandemic me looks back at this in a mix of genuine awe and a smidgen of nostalgia wondering how I sustained this along with all the other spinning plates in life. The reality was that the other plates were frequently smashing. An empty fridge, an erratic diet, inconsistent exercise, the Sunday scaries, a laundry basket fit to burst at all times, a ‘chair’ that held an ever growing toppling tower of clothes, but a lot of time socialising and therefore by extension: drinking.

The above isn’t an unusual lifestyle for any city dwelling professional with no dependents, but with the permanence of remote working and the fatigue of virtual glass clinking, a significant amount of habitual casual drinkers have taken a step back and reassessed their ingrained habits. 

Swathes of Gen Z and younger millennials are taking it a step further and not forming the habits at all. It’s a telling sign that sobriety has gone mainstream with 0.0% Guinness advertising on fleets of buses and the most prominent billboards in town. Guinness is far from alone, major brands including Heineken, Gordons, Corona and Budweiser are all tapping into the zero-alcohol market now in a bid to secure Gen Z loyalty later. 

There’s a number of factors at play here, but the pandemic sped up a drinking culture shift that was already in motion. Isolating at home was fertile ground for drinking too much and many of us overindulged until the novelty of the zoom cocktail hour wore off pretty fast. 

What made hangovers even sort of worth it was ‘the craic’ a vague Irish term which can be used to justify pretty much anything. Craic might entail anything from the motley crew of random characters you encounter along the street on a night out, to a trip down memory lane with your inner circle, the warm convivial feeling that envelopes you when the conversation is flowing and your glass never runs empty. Memories and shared stories the next morning made the hangovers sort of worth it – stories you could add to your fun bank, to be laughed at again and again.

Much of that conviviality was lost during the past couple of years and the hangovers lost any little value they had without ‘the craic’ to show for it. 

I wanted to know if I was only one who felt this way.

It turns out I wasn’t the only one who had changed my drinking habits, when I asked some of the voters to elaborate, the responses suggested it wasn’t only Covid but additional societal changes too. Previously, there was a lot of pressure associated with drinking, but there’s been a big shift in respecting people’s choices, you’re no longer accused of ruining the fun if you do opt for 0%. 

From an economic perspective millennials and Gen Z are significantly behind their parents in terms of wealth accumulation and purchase power, home ownership is a pipe dream for many, car ownership is slowly but surely declining and those €12 cocktails do add up. For some, it’s more about an emphasis on their health and wellbeing, they don’t want to forgo the fun part of going out, they just don’t want the matching hangover.

Ireland, arguably one of Europe’s biggest strongholds in pub culture opened its first alcohol free bar in 2019, aptly named the Virgin Mary Bar, according to their “About” page, it’s a place where you can join a night out at “your full potential”. 

According to data from Drinks Ireland|Beer,non-alcoholic beer sales increased by 129% in Ireland, from 1.79 million litres to 4.12 million litres, between 2017 and 2020, the ‘sober-curious’ market looks set only to grow domestically and internationally.

Interestingly, according to the researchers the market segment buying the low or no alcohol version are also buying the alcoholic version, which means it’s rather about choice and moderation as opposed to eradicating alcohol entirely – and this can surely only be a good thing for business and consumer alike.

Ireland has long been known for its binge-drinking culture, when I moved to ‘the continent’ I was shocked to discover that people drank in moderation simply for the enjoyment of it as opposed to the sole purpose of getting completely inebriated.

Tides are definitely turning with late night café culture slowly creeping into the UK and Ireland, sipping a coffee at 11pm in Paris while reading a book is not unusual, not only in Paris but across much of continental Europe and going back centuries in the Middle East. There is an increasing demand for late night spaces and meeting spots that aren’t centered around alcohol, the importance of the product perhaps doesn’t matter as much as the space and the atmosphere which is ultimately why people go out initially.

Over the next couple of years as people continue to moderate their alcohol habits, industry and hospitality will inevitably have to follow suit.

Irish pubs aren’t going anywhere but they may have just have to make a bit more room for the sober friend in the corner.

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