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Non drinking is becoming the new ‘normal’ in young adults suggests new book

UEL Psychology lecturer Dr Dominic Conroy says young drinkers showing more restraint

The image of the hard drinking ‘binge and brawl’ culture of young adults is becoming less common according to a new study into drinking habits by a University of East London lecturer, who thinks non-drinking is becoming the new ‘normal’ among the young.

As the finishing line looms for those who have opted for Dry January, young drinkers are showing more restraint and non-drinkers are being put in the cultural spotlight by society, says psychology lecturer Dr Dominic Conroy. According to him there has been a marked shift from a culture of consumption to a culture of sustainability, as the world turns more and more to the non-consumption of alcohol.

“Whilst young adults, particularly in northern Europe, used to be the epitome of a ‘binge and brawl’ culture, more recently on our screens they have been more associated with health and wellness, plant-based diets and concerns about the future of the planet,” he says.

While figures show that 57.0% of those polled aged 16 years and over in 2017 drank alcohol, according to an Opinions and Lifestyle Survey by the Office of National Statistics - which equates to 29.2 million drinkers in the population of Great Britain - teetotalism has increased since 2005 for those aged 16 to 44 years and fallen for those aged 65 and over.

Dr Conroy (43) has edited a new book entitled ‘Young Adult Drinking Styles’ with Professor Fiona Measham from Liverpool University, which has put the spotlight on young drinkers, mainly in the 18 to 25 age bracket.

In the book Dr Conroy says non-drinking during social occasions or, more radically, taking the lifestyle decision to not drink alcohol at all, may in fact be becoming ‘the new normal’ in some respects for young adults.

The book, which includes a number of chapters about drinking habits by a variety of expert authors, with statistics and conclusions drawn from a wide bank of data, has been published by Palgrave. It contains 18 chapters from 7 different countries that explore drinking from a variety of perspectives and methods, to provide a range of lenses to consider the global changes in contemporary young adult consumption.

It has helped frame questions around non-drinking, tying together a large and growing body of inter-disciplinary research about non-drinkers and non-drinking that accumulated in the 2010s.

“Being viewed as a non-drinker when out socially might bring out all kinds of comments” Dr Conroy adds. “Things like, ‘you’re bringing the vibe down’, or ‘what’s the point of coming out if you’re not going to have an (alcoholic) drink?’. And learning how to deal with these comments can be challenging. People might not drink this month because they are taking part in Dry January, so would have a good explanation for their non-drinking. But at other times of year, things are less straight-forward.”

Dr  Conroy, based in North London, who himself has given up drinking alcohol for January, has made a study of drinking habits and lectures at the University of East London on  a range of subjects, including research methods, health psychology and addictive behaviours. He has worked at the University for the past two years and has published a number of research papers on the subject of alcohol consumption.

“Young adults drink less, but there are many possible reasons for this including the rise of the internet and changing cultural expectations,” Dr Conroy concludes. “Understanding the diversity of drinking practices amongst contemporary younger adults, including the internationally-recognised phenomenon of a decline in drinking behaviour among 16-24-year olds, is key to developing effective, sustainable ways of promoting healthy levels of alcohol consumption, and to developing nuanced and contextually sensitive alcohol policy programmes”.

Dr Conroy is continuing his research into drinking styles and says future research may well also focus on non-drinkers in an older age category, as well as looking at how non-drinking has rarely featured in health promotion policy and strategy designed to promote healthier alcohol consumption.

The collected edition, titled ‘Young Adult Drinking Styles: Current Perspectives on Research, Policy and Practice’, has just been published in print and is available online by Palgrave MacMillan and can be found online.