Of his Cambridge years, the comedian David Mitchell pertinently concluded ‘I got quite drunk very often and very drunk quite often.’ A recent graduate myself, I took welcome solace in this mantra as it excited a deep and familiar groove within my own consciousness. Having been confronted by so many articles insisting millennials were drinking less than their parents, typically more bewitched by abstinence and Instagram than Absinthe and IPAs, it was comforting to learn that even prissy, uptight, wonderful David Mitchell was a bit of a boozer.
As a History student, I drank a lot at uni. My friends did too. Well not all of them, but the ones I know best, which is hardly a coincidence. None of us had a problem with it – we had very few contact hours, rarely turned up to the ones we did and, frankly, there was very little else to do. Any scrappy work that was accomplished naturally had to be rewarded and typically, as the sun went down, the drinks went up. Not every day, obviously. But any day.
The proportion of 16-24-year-olds who do not drink increased by more than 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. Today, one in five is teetotal. Though, it must be said, that still leaves four who are not. And it is sobering (pun intended) to see so many young people approach the issue as they see it with such controlled and enviable maturity.
But this trend should not be confused with the notion that all young people are drinking less in general. The growing millennial culture of teetotalism has simply fractured a more cohesive University community of drinkers into two more binary camps – those that abstain from alcohol (or drink very little) and those that continue to binge.
These groups may ostensibly share their evenings but they are realistically inhabiting very different worlds, and operating according to different conditions – one defined by tipsy garrulousness and a looser connection to mundanity, the other a sociable and amicable conclusion to the end of the day. Because of this inherent discord, a sense of alienation can be fostered and grievances can be aroused – those who are sober understandably grow weary of the drinkers’ silly antics, and those who are drinking often feel judged by their sober peers.
This is an environment that has little patience for moderation. A ‘them and us’ scenario develops, in which drinkers may even binge further as a means of consolidating and consoling themselves. What we are seeing is not a millennial trend towards moderation. Far from it. It is more a process of social immuring.
But why should this matter? Surely we should just be grateful that some students now elect to eschew Britain’s thunderous, chunderous drinking culture, even if many also don’t?
Perhaps. But this phenomenon has also given rise to a demographic that has much less patience for those who drink and who may have problematic relationships with alcohol, combined with a relatively thin comprehension of the realities of alcohol addiction. Many people my age seem to have a remarkably obscured and facile view of what alcoholism actually looks like. They say that these people are the sad, wretched, saggy loners who sit alone in Wetherspoons at 1030 in the morning, lager winding lugubriously down their wet, claggy facial hair. They are not wrong; these men are most certainly alcoholics. But they are just one type – among the worst but also by far the most visible.
One place where they are much less conspicuous is among millennials reading Arts degrees like mine – where everyone is too young to be looking for addiction and where there are almost infinite hours of the day left open in which to absent mindedly pursue it. For some, Arts Degrees are almost a crash course in alcoholism – hardly ameliorated by the inevitable graduate purgatory that follows.
This is where so many of the millennial bingers, who do very much exist and who do not conform to the widely purported but underrepresented trend of youthful abstinence, reside. A friend recently confided that he had secretly been drunk for the whole of one term. And we’d been entirely oblivious. Because he did not fit into our stereoptypical framework and limited understanding of what an alcoholic was – an old, bearded man from a bygone generation who didn’t have Tinder or Tumblr or Twitter. Who wasn’t and couldn’t be one of us. We had too many smoothies.
And this lack of comprehension is also pervasive on social media. My Facebook news-feed is rammed with exciting mocktail, coffee and juice opportunities geared at those flagship millennials who don’t drink. But a far greater proportion of it is full of memes that valorise drinking culture according to the naive principle that it works exactly the same way for everybody. Whether it’s tagging someone who’d down an industrial skip-worth of gin with you, to a trendy whiskey-oriented Gastropub that’s just opened in Lesser Dripfeed-upon-Spleen that you simply must visit, to solidarity in the assumed Monday morning hangover because you accidentally plundered through 15 times as much as you intended on a Sunday night – glamourised and essentially rampant drinking permeates every level of the so-called moderate millennial’s internet hangouts.
There is absolutely nothing wrong, for most people, with drinking a fair amount not infrequently. If I thought there were, I’d be among the most irritatingly zealous of those who abstain (who are, thankfully, few and far between). The problem arises when young people, whether through a lack of experience or through a naivety enforced by internet culture, assume that drinking is the same for all and affects everyone in the same way. And when, as a result of this misinformed assumption, they are no longer tolerant or understanding when drink doesn’t always make everyone as fun as it does them, or begin to berate people who clearly cannot control their drinking in the way they would like.
The solution is a softening of the disparity between the two extremes that currently define millennial drinking culture. There must be a way to adopt a more moderate approach that is not fraught with miscomprehension on both sides.
Perhaps a good start would be for universities to introduce realistic and grounded alcohol awareness talks that are not patronising or offended by anyone who indulges in more than a glass of wine, but are illuminating about clandestine dependencies that can and do start among millennials at university. Because I can’t listen to another person my age, myself included, insisting that they can’t have an unhappy relationship with alcohol because they’re not down in that Wetherspoons chugging away with the ghosts at opening time.