A new Demos report on youth alcohol consumption finds that alcohol remains an integral social lubricant for both students and young workers alike, with peer pressure and a ‘fear of missing out’ driving excessive drinking. Despite an overall declining trend in youth drinking in recent years, being a non-drinker is often seen to be less desirable and can lead to exclusion in both work and social contexts.
In Youth Drinking in Transition, Demos explores the drinking habits of university students, young professionals and those young people not in education, employment or training (NEET) – as they move between different life phases. The report presents the findings of a major quantitative and qualitative research process, including new analysis of the Understanding Society Survey, Demos-led youth focus groups, Westminster policy-roundtables, and two new surveys of students and young workers.
Despite some recent public policy successes and positive initiatives from both the public and private sectors, Youth Drinking in Transition highlights that young people remain the most likely group to be drinking harmfully – and there are still significant gains to be made on education. Only around half of respondents Demos surveyed reported thinking about the longer-term consequences of drinking.
New media technologies also appear to be playing a strong role in shaping young people’s drinking habits, with Demos analysis suggesting that young adults who drink more are spending more time on social media than those who drink less. Demos’ focus groups found that, particularly for students, social media – especially sharing images of fun nights out – can have an encouraging effect on consumption.
Concerning from a public policy perspective, Demos’ original study of the large, national Understanding Society Survey data-set suggests official Government statistics may be under-estimating the extent to which harmful drinking continues. Using a self-completion questionnaire rather than the primarily face-to-face interviews used by the Health Survey for England (HSE), Demos identified a rate of binge drinking ten percentage points higher than the official statistics – with 29 per cent of 16-24 year olds reporting excessive consumption, compared to 19 per cent in the HSE.
In real terms, this would increase the number of excessive drinkers in England by over 600,000 among those aged 16-24. Such findings are supported by alcohol sales figures, which suggest a higher rate of consumption than the HSE indicates.
This new report builds on Demos’ long-standing programme of work on youth consumption of alcohol, including the 2015 Character and Moderation study, which found that greater awareness of health, lower affordability of, and access to, alcohol, were behind a reduced drinking trend.
Youth Drinking in Transition again confirms that affordability of alcohol is becoming more important to a financially conscious generation – with 66 per cent of university students and 58 per cent of young workers aware of their alcohol expenditure, and those who are financially conscious in general are more likely to be moderate consumers of alcohol.
Youth Drinking in Transition digs further into the habits of specific groups of young people in different life stages:
Students were found to be overall undergoing a cultural shift towards drinking less and spending more time in coffee shops than bars than in previous generations – but an excessive drinking culture remains commonplace in many universities. The research shows that powerful social norms are driving student drinking, with eight of 10 students believing their university’s drinking culture is important, and two-thirds regarding not drinking as a barrier to social integration. While over half of students polled by Demos recognised that there was too much drinking on campus, those who do drink were fiercely protective of what they saw to be a ‘rite of passage’ – believing policy-makers shouldn’t intervene as they would grow out of binge drinking (what Demos calls the ‘drinking maturity hypothesis’).
For the first time, Demos conducted new analysis of the drinking habits of young workers across different occupations – finding that manual jobs (construction and manufacturing) have the strongest excessive drinking cultures, followed by services (law, finance and communications). The lowest rates of binge drinking were found in public services (police, education and health).
Excessive Drinking Rates by Occupation
- Manual and Construction – mining (48 per cent), electricity and gas supply (39 per cent) and construction (37 per cent)
- Professional Service – information and communication (34 per cent) and financial services (33 per cent)
- Public Services – education (23 per cent, and health and social work (22 per cent)
Source: Demos analysis of Understanding Society Survey, 2016
40 per cent of young workers feel that the drinking culture at their work is important – although for 67 per cent of them, their socialising during the week takes place with friends outside of the office. Still, 44 per cent of those surveyed said they drink with colleagues, and 10 per cent with clients – with some expressing concern about their progression in the workplace if they abstained, and a quarter citing peer pressure from colleagues to drink. Particularly in top professions such as business, law and finance, drinking appears to remain a powerful social currency – and a salve for the stresses of modern life, with 25 per cent of young workers citing this as a typical reason to drink.
Despite students claiming they would grow out of their bad habits, young workers’ lives appear to be even more affected by binge drinking – with 32 per cent saying it had negatively impacted their work performance, compared to 23 per cent of students. Again, young workers claimed they would grow out of their bad habits, predicting they’d be more sensible when they settled down with a family.
- To improve evidence on the drinking habits of young adults and others, Demos recommends an overhaul of Government survey methodologies on alcohol consumption, trialling self-completion questionnaires; greater focus on 16-17-year olds – currently a research ‘blind spot’; and further longitudinal analysis drinking habits, to establish whether young people can and do ‘grow out’ of excessive drinking.
- To further the positive trends towards moderation, Demos calls for new guidance, campaigns and drinks labelling to use common-sense language on recommended drinking limits, abandoning the use of ‘units’ – which are difficult to understand and don’t change behaviour. The report also recommends that responsible drinking campaigners appeal to the financial savings of reduced consumption, and that further research is undertaken into the role of social media in encouraging excessive drinking.
- Demos also recommends the Home Office investigates the prevalence of sales of alcohol to people already drunk in the on- and off- trade, and that clearer national guidelines on irresponsible drinks promotions should be produced. For students, the report argues that that universities should trial different approaches to freshers’ weeks, to reduce student expectations of concentrated drinking on arrival at university, and should work with student bodies and sports clubs to raise the profile of teetotalism and moderate consumption.
- For young adults in employment, Demos raises whether the Government could incentivise small businesses to reduce workplace alcohol consumption, and suggests employers could take a stronger role in facilitating open conversations in the workplace about the issue. The report also recommends that targeted initiatives from the Department for Education on building life skills, and the Government’s preventative work with families, should be further expanded to help ensure that current and future NEETs are better supported and equipped to make positive choices.
Commenting on the report, Ian Wybron, Senior Researcher at Demos, said:
“Harmful drinking is on the decline amongst young adults, which is good news for policy-makers. But as our new research shows, this is not a victory won. The government likely does not know the true numbers drinking to excess. Alcohol remains the defining social glue for many young adults, with non-drinkers effectively excluded in many circles.”
“Tackling excessive drinking cultures where they exist head-on, as well as encouraging more responsible norms and precedents at different life stages, is vital to building a more responsible drinking culture. Excessive young drinkers commonly think that they will grow out of harmful drinking as they hit more ‘adult’ life stages. But it is clear that while many will indeed move on, for others dangerous precedents are set that are much harder to shift. Government departments, universities and students’ unions, employers, schools, local community organisations, all have a role to play.”