Generation Sober | Is Gen Z’s Love Affair With Booze Coming To An End?

It’s cold, it’s rainy, your bank account is empty and you can’t even get a spot on your weekly Wednesday spin class because the gym is so busy. January, often known as the Monday of the year, is a month of new resolutions for many. Echoes of “New Year, New Me!” flood social media, whilst wellness ads and reels of fitness influencers promising to get you ‘bikini-body ready’ can (and do) feel endless. 

In an oxymoronic nod to its typically wet climate, this month is also known for another reason: Dry January. This year, 25% of American Gen Zers surveyed by Voxburner revealed that they would be considering taking part in Dry January, with 23% of respondents from the UK also reflecting the same sentiment. In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the drivers behind the sober curious movement, how brands are recognising the commercial potential of this and whether the decrease in alcohol consumption is being countered by an alarming increasing elsewhere (clue: it rhymes with ‘shaping’).

What Exactly is Dry January?

Billed and popularised as a health trend, Dry January was first instigated in 2013 by the UK based group ‘Alcohol Change’ (AC). AC built upon the famed adage that it ‘only takes three weeks to break a habit’ by encouraging 31 full days of sobriety throughout January. A quick navigation around AC’s site will reveal some wishful promises, claiming that those who take part in Dry January will ‘see their skin get brighter, their wallets get fuller and their days get busier’. What’s not to love?

The Break-Up

In the UK, the long-standing love affair between young people and booze appears to be coming to an end. Labelled ‘Generation Sensible’, Gen Zers are increasingly rejecting binge-drinking culture in favour of nights in and other social activities that don’t involve sinking 8 vodka lime sodas. There are a few significant reasons behind this.

Firstly, Gen Z are something of a self-conscious generation. They’re digital natives, growing up in the era of social media and online perfectionism. They’re also highly aware of the nuances of their online presence. In a drinking culture that sees nights out playing out in real-time online, Gen Z recognises that the loss of control from drinking can have real-life consequences offline. Research conducted by Google reflects this, with a massive 49% of Gen Zers saying their online image is always at the back of their mind when they go out drinking. Letting loose is associated with risk, and many are beginning to feel as though it’s just not worth it. 

Secondly, Gen Z’s entrance into adulthood has been tarred by the cost-of-living crisis. Many are hyper aware of their spending habits – and probably for good reason. With data collected by Student Beans recently revealing that the average cocktail price in UK Student Unions is £6.18, just one night on the town could result in a very humbling bank account balance the next day. Better to put those Student Loan pennies towards something meaningful, right?

Finally, Gen Zers are keenly aware of protecting their mental health and recognise the adverse effect that alcohol can have on this. A phenomenon labelled as ‘hangxiety’ is used to describe the feelings of anxiousness and paranoia that many feel after a night on the booze – often waking you with a pounding headache, a sense of doom and a compulsion to check if you’ve posted anything embarrassing on social media. Despite its semi-jovial name, the effects of hangxiety make sobriety a highly appealing option for many. This is supported by recent data obtained by Voxburner, which revealed 35% of UK respondents believe alcohol has a negative impact on their mental health. 

Curiosity Killed The Mojito

These factors and the above data supports the increasingly popular trend of becoming ‘sober curious’. Taking its namesake from author and founder of the Club Soda group Ruby Warrington, sober curious individuals are those who are considering changing their drinking habits in favour of embracing a sober lifestyle. Gen Z are driving this momentum, with a massive 40% of young consumers surveyed by Voxburner sharing that they would consider giving up alcohol completely. 

How Are Brands Reacting?

Funnily enough, the stigma around alcohol isn’t related to its consumption, but rather the lack thereof. Many young consumers will be familiar with groans of “why not?” when they tell their peers they aren’t drinking, often facing jibes around being “the boring one”.

The middle ground here has been recognised by brands, who have noted the commercial potential and begun to bring alcohol-free alternatives into the mainstream. One early example is Spencer Matthews’ brand The Clean Liquor Company. Matthews (who is probably better recognised by Gen Zers for his stint on Made In Chelsea and his many cheating scandals), developed the concept after noticing a gap in the beverage market for sober-curious individuals, writing that he quickly realised “the drink choices for the sober curious were limited and mainly made of sugary and unhealthy options”. 

Another more recent example is Bristol-based entrepreneur Ellie Webb’s venture Caleño. Like Matthews, Webb’s venture was born out of frustration after feeling ‘completely uninspired by the non-alcoholic drinks on offer’ when she was on a Dry January night out. Caleño promises to pack the same flavourful punch as a normal gin or rum, offering its alternatives in colourful, vibrant packaging. Caleño’s growth has been shaped by campaigns such as ‘Say Yes to A Summer of No Regrets’ (which encouraged users to soberly participate in activities they usually rely on alcohol for) and a Gen Z-orientated TikTok strategy that utilises uses user-generated content and how-to style tutorials.

Liquid Courage, or Placebo Effect?

If hangxiety is the term for bringing you down, Dutch courage characterises the ‘up’. Used as a slogan to describe the artificial feelings of bravery after a few G&T’s, Dutch courage is often cited as the reason behind why many choose to drink in the first place. The dating scene is particularly relevant here, with ‘going for drinks’ by far the most popular first-date format, and many relying on alcohol to calm their nerves. 

Dating App Thursday’s Brand Partnership Lead, Jess Wreford, recently set out to challenge this idea. Partnering with non-alcoholic drinks company ZeroZilchZip, Jess filmed a behind-the-scenes peek of her first ever sober date. Users see Jess in a pub that sells non-alcoholic beer, consistently pictured with a drink in her hand throughout the video. Despite her drink containing no alcohol, Jess says because she’s “drinking something that feels like a beer” she doesn’t feel as nervous. Whether it’s reverse psychology or a placebo effect, this notion supports the idea that it’s possible to get a confidence buzz without actually consuming alcohol.

No Gin, Just Tonic (…and one Elf Bar, please).

Alcohol use might be decreasing, but a worrying phenomenon is following hot on its heels, and it comes in the flavour of blue razz lemonade.

Enticed in by their brightly coloured packaging and saccharine aromas, Elf Bars (alongside other vaping brands) have become the hottest new accessory to encapsulate Gen Z. Their widespread availability and allure has led to 27% of students in the UK admitting being addicted to these disposable vapes, whilst more than half have started using Elf Bars since the start of term.

And, contrary to other crazes (remember whipped coffee and crocs?) the risk factor associated with vaping appears to be high. In fact, despite research still in relative infancy, scientists have confirmed that just one Elf Bar contains the same amount of nicotine as 46 cigarettes. Scary stuff.

Image sourced from The Independent

The statistics across the pond aren’t all too promising either, with a study by the Monitoring The Future institute revealing that 7% of teenagers had vaped nicotine in the past 30 days, compared to 6% who had drunk alcohol. Richard Miech, the principal investigator of the study noted that ‘what began as an epidemic of teen vaping is on its way to becoming endemic’.

So, whilst this generation might be drinking less, it would appear they’re substituting the booze for other vices. Vaping has been glamorised in popular culture, with Gen Z favourites such as Olivia Neill, Miley Cyrus and Dua Lipa all spotted donning the portable accessory. TikTok searches for #ElfBars soar into the billions, with countless videos discussing the chokehold that the beloved nicotine highlighter has on young consumers.

@iamnotlucymoon

idk about you but my friends are definitely smoking them faster than that #elfbar

♬ original sound – Lucy Moon

Whilst JUUL bars have already been banned in the US, the European Union (EU) has made it clear that they intend to follow a similar trajectory. In fact, the EU has proposed to go even further, by implementing a total ban on the sale of flavoured heated tobacco products.

Key Takeaways

  • Gen Z’s affinity for booze is diminishing, and brands are recognising the commercial potential by marketing alcohol-free alternatives all year round.
  • Young consumers are more self-aware than ever, and recognise the adverse affects of alcohol on their mental health.
  • The harm factor associated with alcohol consumption is being countered elsewhere, with Gen Z’s use of disposable vapes driving new (and under-researched) risks.

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Image source: GQ India

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