Opinion: Youth & Alcohol

Drinking to Belong? Overconsumption in Young Adult Social Groups

The leisure choices of young people are never far from news agendas or the concerns of policy-makers. However, increasing rates of alcohol consumption in the United Kingdom in recent years may have shifted young people’s attitudes towards drinking.

Like the discovery of the teenager in the 1950s, the young adult is a relatively new life phase made visible by societal change. Young adulthood represents the in-between years of independence without the full responsibilities of parenting, full time careers and home ownership. At this stage of life, friendship groups and consumption become central for identity and wellbeing. In our study of young adult drinkers in Scotland, excessive alcohol consumption was not only an important rite of passage, it was an important means of establishing and maintaining these friendships. Hazardous drinking could take place routinely in groups without drinkers seeing their drinking in problematic terms. Binge-drinking was seen as temporary behaviour made normal by the similar behaviours of peers and young adults’ exposure to it through sources such as retail, television, bars and clubs, and popular culture, among others. Many understood their drinking as enjoying the freedom years of young adulthood and creating the stories which bonded friendship groups together.

It would be wrong to characterise all drinkers in this young adult group in the same manner. Abstainers noted awkwardness in standing out from the crowd, often having to find excuses for not drinking. There were also differences between those who were on higher education tracks to adulthood and those who left school earlier to seek full-time employment. The erosion of the youth labour market means this latter group is often financially excluded from the commercial premises where drinking takes place, enacting their experiments with alcohol in public spaces such as parks. Added risks were presented in these spaces, not least the risk of criminal prosecution. As the ailing economy in the United Kingdom is hitting young people the hardest, it remains to be seen how the drinking of this age group adapts. Perhaps having less disposable income will see young people moderating their consumption. Or will young adult excess be enacted in other, more affordable ways with different sets of associated risk?


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