Gen Z are sober curious: Unpacking younger generations’ changing relationship with alcohol

By Abby Amoakuh

Updated Jan 5, 2024 at 03:23 PM

Reading time: 5 minutes

I was 15 years old when I had my first real drink and I will never forget the feeling. I was laden with anxiety, excitement, curiosity and paranoia—I was still underage, after all—about this exciting, new thing that was about to enter my life: alcohol. And I have pretty much been drinking ever since.

Experimenting with alcohol is seen as an important rite of passage for young adults in most Western countries, such as Germany, where I am from. As we grow older, alcohol takes on the role of a social lubricant, the hallmark of all good celebrations, and a tool to ease anxiety and further relaxation in a range of different social and professional scenarios. Drinking has pretty much managed to infiltrate every aspect of our lives because it’s so deeply embedded in our culture. We don’t even question when or why we drink anymore. We just do it, although we’re all quite aware of alcohol’s addictive and potentially lethal capabilities.

This might be the reason why gen Zers are increasingly joining a new counter-cultural movement that prioritises mental and physical health as well as fun and social connections without the need for alcohol. Get ready for the sober curious lifestyle.

What does sober curious mean?

The sober curious movement encourages people to question their relationship with alcohol and explore sobriety in a selective, intermittent way without having to fully commit to it. It’s about drinking less by being more conscious about why and when you want to drink alcohol, in essence.

For people who just want to dip a toe into sobriety, or struggle with the idea of fully cutting ties with the drink, this is a great way to explore abstinence. And apparently, gen Z have fully hopped on the sober bandwagon. In 2019, the UK’s largest recent study of drinking behaviours showed that 16 to 25-year-olds are the most likely age cohort to be abstinent, with 26 per cent of respondents indicating that they do not drink. The least sober age group were 55 to 74-year-olds, where only 15 per cent stated that they do not drink.

Among US adults, the study showed that only 60 per cent of gen Zers drink. The portion of college-age Americans who are teetotal, however, has risen from 20 per cent to 28 per cent in the last decade.

But with gen Z, most of the evidence is usually online, so let’s take a look at Google and TikTok, shall we? Over the past five years, search terms like “non-alcoholic drink” and “non-alcoholic spirits” have generated a 3,650 per cent and 750 per cent increase, respectively, in Google search frequency.

On TikTok, hashtags related to sobriety are also registering growth. The hashtag #sobercurious has increased by 68 per cent in the past seven to eight months, increasing to 760.3 million from 450 million views across the platform. Moreover, between August and December 2023, the hashtag #sobertok also increased by 21 per cent to 1.7 billion views from 1.4 billion.

Young people are clearly getting a taste for the sober or NoLo (No or low alcohol) lifestyle. For this reason, SCREENSHOT spoke to three gen Zers who have embraced sobriety or drinking less to find out why this generation is abandoning the drink.

“When I turned 16, I went to my first house party or ‘After Prom’ as it was called! This was my first experience being drunk. I enjoyed having no inhibitions but felt sick and headachey the next day. I thought I wouldn’t drink ever again, however, starting college, house parties became the norm as we couldn’t drink alcohol legally yet,” 24-year-old Ciara told me when I asked her why she adopted a sober lifestyle.

@xciaralouisexxx

Can you tell my therapist is on holiday this week 😅 #sobercurious #soberinyour20s #ukdrinkingculture

♬ original sound - Ciara

“I then went to university where it was a competition of who could do as many nights out in a row during freshers week,” she continued. “I took a break from university for six months due to poor mental health. During this time, I didn’t live near any clubs so the binge drinking stopped. I learned I preferred a casual drink of wine at a pub or bar instead of feeling awful the next day. As I got older, I noticed [that] when I drank alcohol, I really struggled to sleep well and my mind would race. More recently, after a break-up, I went for a couple of drinks with friends and had a good time. When I got home I felt the room spinning and my mind racing. The next day I had an anxiety attack. This is when I realised alcohol wasn’t worth it anymore,” she further revealed.

Ciara’s experience of binge drinking at university was shared by 26-year-old Ivey, who also decided to adopt sobriety, after struggling with her health: “When I was in college, I drank a lot and multiple times on the weekends. I looked at it as a fun night out that wasn’t hurting me, other than a brutal hangover. It wasn’t until I educated myself and started a holistic health journey that I realised the negative impact it was having on me. I struggled with a lot of anxiety and depression during my college party days and never correlated the two until after I graduated. My family also has a history of dementia and after going to holistic health school, I learned the effects alcohol can have on the brain and my body,” Ivey told me.

@iveycross

trying new non alcoholic drinks is my personality trait 🥂 #nonalcoholicdrinks #nonalcoholicdrink #sobercuriousjourney #sobercurious #wellnesstiktoks #inyour20s #nonalcoholicbeverage

♬ original sound - Ivey Cross

Ivey went sober at 25, and is presently a stay-at-home mother and content creator. When I asked her how she feels now that she made the transition, she replied: “I feel really confident in myself. It takes a strong, confident person to say no to drinking when everyone else at the event is drinking. Therefore, I feel accomplished and it allows me to be productive the next day! I’ve still struggled with sickness even with cutting out the alcohol, so I’m still working on healing but overall, I feel so much better and I remember all my events which is great for my mental health! I will say I do have a glass of Prosecco once or twice a year on a special occasion since I never had an alcohol problem but that’s pretty rare.”

These statements show that an important factor in this shift towards sobriety is wellness and education. Young people seem to be more knowledgable about the impact alcohol can have on their health and mental health. Further, these statements reveal a growing sense of risk aversion. In 2019, Google research showed that 41 per cent of gen Zers associate alcohol with “vulnerability,” “anxiety” and even “abuse,” which makes them more careful, since concerns around losing control and developing a drinking addiction are also visibly heightened among young people.

The fear of losing control was an important concern for my last interviewee, 27-year-old Emma.

@energisewithem

How to not drink when all your friends are at an event. People-pleasing & social pressure made me drink alcohol a lot longer than I wanted to. In time, it will get easier and won’t feel that pressure at all from anyone as you gain confidence with it. My favourite way to gain confidence in sobriety was to attend sober events where everyone around me isn’t drinking and to gain confidence through those experiences. If you’re waiting to build confidence, try dancing sober and meeting new people while being sober. My next sober dance event is on September 17th, from 4 pm to 8 pm. Tickets link in bio 💃🕺 @shanillakhlani 📸 #soberparty #soberuk #soberlife #soberdancing #sobermovement #sobercurious #soberaf #soberanniversary #soberaf #soberadvice #soberdance #sobermovement #sobercelebration

♬ original sound - Energisewithem

Emma grew up wanting to be a professional athlete and never drank much due to her rigorous training routine and, quite frankly, a lack of interest in getting drunk. However, things changed when she went to university. “You know uni and freshers, you want to fit in and you want to meet mates,” she shared with me during our interview.

“I didn’t drink that much till that point so I was the classic fresher who got really smashed. But because people thought it was funny, I carried on so it was almost like I was doing it for validation for a really long time. I remember people saying ‘You were so funny last night, you did this and you did that and it was hilarious.’ I was getting validation off it so that’s why I did it. But then I jumped on a table at a club and ended up damaging my ankle. So I couldn’t do any sport.”

“I don’t think I ever liked it but I was just doing it for other people,” Emma went on. “It’s such a strange, yet ‘normal’ thing to get to that level of drunk.”

“Then I left university and I remember so clearly that the times I didn’t have alcohol and I was surfing and hiking, or just having a good time with people, my life was a lot easier. There was no drama, I wasn’t losing things and I didn’t have anxiety the next morning. And I just started thinking ‘What is the benefit of this thing?’”

Emma went sober at age 23. Now, she organises sober dance events to enable others to have fun without the need for alcohol.

@energisewithem

Come with me to my sober ecstatic dance event in cornwall 💃🕺 #soberparty #soberuk #soberlife #soberdancing #sobermovement #sobercurious #soberaf #soberanniversary #soberaf #soberadvice #soberdance #cornwalllife #cornwalltiktok #cornwallbeach #sobermovement #sobercelebration

♬ Lost in Music (1995 Remaster) - Sister Sledge

“I think there is a stigma around going sober and then you are boring but actually for me, it’s been really embodying and an act of self-love. I can still go out with my mates that drink and have an amazing time,” Emma told me.

Rather than mindlessly drinking, it seems as though gen Z is very willing to probe its relationship with alcohol, confront uncomfortable questions about drinking habits, and make the necessary improvements if need be.

Altogether, this move towards sobriety seems to be part of a broader shift towards well-being, self-awareness, and a conscious reevaluation of societal norms.

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