Is the alcohol industry drying up?

Since time immemorial, alcohol has been a part of the social fabric of human life on earth. The earliest evidence of intentional alcohol production stems back to 7,000BC, from fermented residues found in neolithic pottery jars from northern China. The Sumerians in Mesopotamia were brewing beer as far back as 3,000BC, while the Romans believed wine to be a daily necessity, with soldiers required to drink one litre per day. From our ancient ancestors through to the present day, alcohol has played a fundamental role in shaping human culture and socialisation. Omnipresent at almost all social events – from the celebratory to the sombre – alcohol is a conversational lubricant for some, a crutch for others, and simply part and parcel of everyday life for many millions more.

Ubiquitous and ever-popular, alcohol has become one of the largest and most powerful industries in the modern world. With the global alcohol trade valued at an astonishing $1.17trn in 2021 – and still growing – booze is very much big business. And while it may look like the alcohol industry is going from strength to strength, recent changes in consumer behaviour suggest that the market as we know it today may be in danger of running dry. The early signs of a culture shift on booze started emerging in 2018, with the publication of an influential new study on alcohol habits.

Years of public health campaigns have succeeded in improving our collective alcohol-related knowledge

The report, published by Berenberg Research, found that Gen Z were drinking 20 percent less per capita than Millennials – who, in turn, drink less than Baby Boomers and Gen Xers did at the same age. While previous generations may have marked the passage into adulthood with binge drinking and hard partying, today’s youngsters are much more temperate, shying away from excessive alcohol consumption and instead prioritising their mental and physical health. With more than a quarter of Gen Zers now teetotal, the alcohol industry may need to prepare itself for a sobering future.

Time, please
Almost overnight, the pandemic dramatically transformed social habits the world over – including our social drinking habits. The initial lockdowns saw a surge in alcohol consumption, particularly in those aged 40 and above, with 8.6 million UK adults admitting to drinking more frequently during the early months of the pandemic. Interestingly, while older people found themselves drinking more during lockdown, younger people were increasingly drawn to sobriety.

There has been a general decline in drinking since the end of the government-mandated lockdowns

According to research carried out by the University of New South Wales, Australians aged 18–24 were most likely to have decreased their alcohol consumption during lockdown, with 44 percent of adults in this age group reporting that they were drinking less. The trend isn’t just confined to Australia, either – British charity Drinkaware recently reported that there has been a general decline in drinking since the end of the government-mandated lockdowns – and Gen Z were once again at the forefront of this teetotal movement.

With fewer opportunities to socialise with friends, drinking somewhat lost its appeal among young people during lockdown. Fatigued by virtual drinks and zoom parties, Gen Z found themselves drawn to more traditional, tactile hobbies such as sewing, knitting and gardening. In Britain, 60 percent of those aged 16–29 reported taking up a new hobby during lockdown, while retailer John Lewis saw sales of sewing machines rise by 127 percent in April 2020, bolstered by viral DIY trends on social media.

What’s more, as young people in their millions flocked back to their parental homes during lockdown, a diminished sense of independence and near-constant familial presence may have prompted youngsters to pursue more family-friendly activities during this time. A Pew Research Centre study published in July 2020 estimated that 52 percent of Americans aged 18–29 were living with one or both parents – the largest percentage of young adults to do so since the Great Depression. Now, over two years on from the first global lockdowns, many of those who returned back home still live there, often out of economic necessity. If these new living arrangements are indeed here to stay, the social lives of these so-called ‘boomerang kids’ will undoubtedly have to change too – and the weekend boozing so often associated with young adulthood may well be a thing of the past.

Generation sensible
While the pandemic has certainly had a profound impact on our social habits, it is not the only factor behind this new wave of sobriety. In fact, youth drinking has been in decline across most high-income countries for the last 20 years. Today, young people are more likely to be completely teetotal than any generation that came before, and those who do drink alcohol tend to both drink less often and consume smaller amounts. Dubbed ‘generation sensible’ by some commentators, this new cohort of youngsters is generally considered to be more cautious and risk averse than previous generations, both in regards to their physical health and their mental wellbeing.

An increased awareness of the dangers of drinking may be one reason why young adults are increasingly choosing sobriety. Years of public health campaigns have succeeded in improving our collective alcohol-related knowledge, and for the health-conscious youth of today, drinking may simply not be worth the risk. And they have good reason to be cautious – alcohol consumption remains the leading risk factor globally for mortality and morbidity among those aged 15–24, and, as a depressant, is also linked to poor mental health. For Gen Z, the mental toll of drinking is a real sticking point – 86 percent of zoomers feel that mental health is as significant a consideration as physical health when considering drinking.

Indeed, anxiety surrounding alcohol consumption is another driver behind the decline in youth drinking. Often stereotyped as a generation plagued by anxiety, some young adults find alcohol consumption to be a source of stress, rather than an escape from it. As the first generation to have never known a world without the internet, Gen Zers are likely to have had an online presence across multiple social media platforms from a very early age. As such, they are hyper aware of their online image and are anxious of having it ruined by their drunken behaviour being caught on camera for all to see.

According to a study carried out by advertising agency Red Brick Road, 49 percent of Gen Z say that their online image is always at the back of their mind when they go out drinking with friends – so no wonder zoomers find it hard to let their hair down on a night out. Sobriety, or at least a more mindful approach to drinking, may help Gen Z to feel more in control of what is being posted of them online, alleviating any anxiety of drunken moments being inadvertently shared with the masses. After all, in an age where everyone is Google-able, the boundaries between private and public life are more blurred than ever before – as Gen Z knows only too well.

Drying out
While young people may be leading the sober curious trend, zoomers aren’t the only generation embracing a teetotal lifestyle. Across the globe, people of all age groups are beginning to reconsider their relationship with alcohol, cutting down or cutting out alcohol from their diets in an effort to prioritise health and wellbeing. Alcohol-free challenges such as ‘Dry January’ and ‘Sober October’ have been steadily growing in popularity since the mid-2010s, with millions of social drinkers signing up to commit themselves to a completely sober month. This year’s ‘Dry January’ saw 35 percent of legal-aged US adults quit alcohol for the entire month – marking the highest participation rates ever recorded for the challenge.

The Virgin Mary pub in Dublin, Ireland is alcohol-free

Across the pond in Britain, almost eight million people planned a month off drinking in January 2022 – a 22 percent increase on last year’s participation figures. What’s more, research has shown that approximately seven in 10 people who complete ‘Dry January’ continue to drink less six months later, making the challenge a useful stepping stone to sobriety for many.

Elsewhere in the world, long-held traditions and customs surrounding alcohol are also beginning to wane. Japan is known for its Nomikai gatherings – a feature of its business culture that usually involves an after-work get-together for co-workers over drinks. While in the past, Nomikai has been a central feature of working life in Japan, recent changes in attitudes towards drinking suggest that the practice could soon disappear. Over 60 percent of respondents to a 2021 survey said that they thought that work-related drinks gatherings were now unnecessary, meaning that for the very first time, more Japanese workers oppose Nomikai culture than support it.

This shift in attitudes has coincided with – and perhaps led to – a decline in drinking across Japan. According to the country’s National Tax Agency (NTA), alcohol consumption in Japan fell from an annual average of 100 litres per person in 1995, to 75 litres per person in 2020. This drop in drinking has had a significant impact on the country’s budget – taxes on alcohol accounted for five percent of Japan’s overall tax revenue in 1980, but by 2020, this figure had shrunk to 1.7 percent.

With alcohol tax revenue at its lowest level in 31 years, earlier this year the NTA launched a contest designed to boost alcohol sales among young people. The ‘Sake Viva!’ competition, which was open to 20–29-year-olds over the summer, asked entrants to develop business plans that would breathe new life into the country’s waning alcohol industry and tempt youngsters back to the bottle.

While Japan may be an outlier in its efforts to actively encourage alcohol consumption among its population, other countries around the world have noticed a similar decline in both drinking and sales. In 2021, alcohol sales in Scotland fell to their lowest level in 26 years, while in Italy, per capita alcohol consumption fell by 23 percent in the decade between 2006 and 2016. In Australia, meanwhile, drinking has fallen among all age groups, and is now at its lowest level since the early 1960s. From Europe to Australasia, the figures tell a similar story. With greater health awareness and health consciousness spreading across the globe, we are witnessing a real-time shift in attitudes towards drinking. As the harmful effects of excessive drinking become too numerous to ignore, is alcohol consumption set to become as socially unacceptable as smoking?

Social stigma
It seems somewhat inconceivable that something as ingrained in our social life as alcohol could become seriously stigmatised. And yet, we have seen it happen before. Indeed, the first half of the 20th century has been called the ‘golden age of the cigarette.’ Cheap, accessible, and – most importantly – fashionable, cigarettes boomed in popularity during the early 1900s, with approximately half of the population of industrialised countries smoking cigarettes by the late 1950s. In the UK, up to 80 percent of adult men were regular smokers by the mid-20th century, and the habit was fast spreading among women, too. Smoking was seen as not just socially acceptable but aspirational, glamourised in Hollywood releases and even publicly promoted as a ‘healthy’ lifestyle choice. In 1946, Reynolds Tobacco Company famously introduced a print and radio campaign that attested that ‘more doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.’

Thanks to both the effectiveness of the campaigns created by tobacco companies and, of course, the addictive nature of the product itself, cigarettes were omnipresent in all forms of public life in the mid-1900s. But, little by little, the tide began to turn on cigarettes, as new studies started to make associations between smoking and fatal illness. Then, in 1964, US Surgeon General Luther Terry published a report that definitively linked smoking cigarettes with lung cancer. The evidence was irrefutable.

And yet, the tobacco industry didn’t disappear overnight. In 1974, 10 years on from the report’s publication, half of British adults still smoked. Over the following decades, governments on both sides of the Atlantic ran a number of public health campaigns aimed at improving awareness of the harmful effects of smoking. This education drive – coupled with new legislation encouraging people to cut down on cigarettes or stop smoking altogether – saw the number of smokers drop dramatically by the end of the century.

In a matter of decades, smoking went from socially ubiquitous to socially stigmatised. And there are some early signs that alcohol could be heading the same way. According to a study carried out by Red Brick Road, 41 percent of Gen Z associate alcohol with ‘vulnerability, anxiety and abuse’ – and this apprehensive outlook on drinking has translated into rising sobriety among young people, with 26 percent of Brits aged 16 to 24 identifying as fully sober. Across the British population as a whole, 20 percent do not drink alcohol, marking a three percent increase in the proportion of non-drinkers since 2015. What’s more, a third of pub visits are now completely alcohol-free, demonstrating a shift towards sober socialising even in traditionally boozy environments. Sobriety, it seems, is having a moment. And as the world begins to grapple with a worsening cost-of-living crisis, non-drinkers may soon find that they are protecting their wallets along with their health.

Pinching pennies
The COVID-19 downturn was branded a ‘once in a lifetime’ economic event. And yet, just two years on from the start of the pandemic, the world stands on the precipice of another devastating recession. On both sides of the Atlantic, higher-than-expected inflation has seen prices of everyday goods skyrocket, severely impacting household budgets and causing many families to tighten the purse strings. In times of hardship, ‘unnecessary’ purchases are the first things to be struck from the weekly shopping list, and for many, a night at the pub falls under this ‘frivolous’ category.

The price of everything from food to fuel is rising, and alcohol is certainly no exception. The average cost of a pint of beer in the UK has shot up by 70 percent since 2008, hitting £8 for the very first time in some London establishments. At such eye-watering prices, it’s perhaps no surprise that Britons have been cutting down on boozing in an effort to save some pennies. According to a survey carried out by YouGov, 27 percent of Brits say they are now spending less on alcohol compared to last year, while seven percent of respondents have cut out drinking altogether, citing cost-related reasons.

There is a long-held belief that the alcohol industry is recession-proof. The argument, as put forward by some market analysts, is fairly convincing – that hard times can lead to hard drinking as people look to ‘self-medicate’ during periods of intense stress. But the reality is rather more complicated. The global financial crash saw a period of price stagnation and falling beer sales, and global alcohol consumption would have fallen by two percent in 2009, had it not been buoyed by increased consumption in Brazil, Russia, India and China. What’s clear is that in times of economic hardship, drinking outside of the home takes the biggest hit, as financial anxieties see people going out less and staying at home more. With many households already reporting that they are spending less on alcohol, it’s not difficult to imagine that this trend will continue as the cost-of-living crisis worsens over the winter months.

The current crisis is set to last at least into the second half of 2023, and household spending power is expected to plummet by a staggering £3,000 in the UK – a contraction in household income twice as severe as was triggered by the global financial crash. While the alcohol industry may be recession-resilient, it certainly isn’t recession-proof when people are forced to count every penny.

Evolving tastes
The alcohol industry is facing a double dilemma. In the short term, the escalating economic downturn may lead individuals to re-evaluate their drinking habits in an effort to make savings. In the long term, a sustained societal shift towards sobriety and a more temperate approach to alcohol consumption could see this long-profitable industry run dry.

One thing is for certain, though – the alcohol industry won’t be admitting defeat anytime soon. Already, brands are responding to their customers’ new teetotal preferences. The low-and-no alcohol industry has boomed in recent years, with off-premises sales reaching an impressive $3.1bn in 2021. In Britain, sales of low-and-no alcohol beers have almost doubled in the last five years, with alternative versions of popular brands helping the sober curious to make the switch. Whether they fancy a Budweiser or are more partial to a Becks, customers are now spoilt for choice when it comes to alcohol-free options. Long gone are the days when pubs could only offer non-drinkers a tepid lemonade – and the low-and-no alcohol market shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon (see Fig 1).

The world’s largest brewer, Anheuser-Busch InBev, has set itself an ambitious target of having low-and-no alcohol beers account for a fifth of its overall sales by 2025. While it may not reach this lofty goal, the ambition alone marks something of a culture shift in how some of the world’s most powerful beverage companies are looking to market and promote their products. Alcohol-free is not merely a fad, but a lucrative new revenue stream – one that could be worth more than $1.7trn by 2028.

Today’s non-drinkers have more choice than ever in where they choose to enjoy a booze-free tipple, too. Sober-friendly ‘dry’ bars have been popping up in cities across the globe, creating safe and inviting spaces for teetotallers to enjoy a night out. From Dublin’s alcohol-free pub, The Virgin Mary, to swanky speakeasy Getaway in Brooklyn, this new wave of abstemious establishments cater to both the committedly sober and those who simply want to experience a different kind of night out. Often softly lit, with trendy, ‘instagrammable’ decor, these sober bars tend to focus on creating an experiential offering for their customers – yet another aspect that appeals to the growing Gen Z clientele.

Having recently surpassed Millennials as the most populous generation on earth, Gen Z’s buying power is growing, as is their power to shape and dictate future consumption habits. As young people around the world increasingly embrace sobriety, the alcohol industry will need to follow suit – as paradoxical as it may seem. This new trend poses a challenge, certainly, but also an unmissable opportunity. If brands can shift their focus towards producing and marketing more alcohol-free alternatives, they could play a key part in promoting a healthier, more moderate future for teetotallers and regular drinkers alike. Cheers to that, indeed.