Posted by: bluesyemre | November 30, 2021

Are we the last generation of binge drinkers?

Today’s midlifers are more likely to drink to excess than their grown-up children
Today’s midlifers are more likely to drink to excess than their grown-up children CREDIT: Jordi Labanda

‘Wine! Helping Mums One Sip At A Time’ reads my most recent birthday card from my teenage daughters. I can’t blame them for choosing it. For nearly two years, they’ve witnessed me pouring my evening beaker (actually a good half pint because the glasses are so fashionably huge) of chardonnay. Then – often – another.

Boozing is how stressed mums made it through lockdown, right? The proportion of people drinking four or more times a week increased from 13.7 per cent in 2017-19 to 22 per cent during the pandemic, according to a study by the University of Glasgow’s Institute of Health & Wellbeing. Binge drinking rose too (up from 10.8 per cent to 16.2 per cent in the same period) with the increase most pronounced among ‘women over 25, white ethnic groups and those with degree-level education’ – a demographic I fit into. 

In some respects, it’s hardly surprising. Even before the pandemic, women aged 50 to 70 were more likely than younger women to consume alcohol at levels that exceed low-risk drinking guidelines – and considered it perfectly fine, as long as they appeared in control. Around 25 per cent of women are classed as ‘binge drinkers’, consuming more than six units in a row at least one night a week. This sounds like a lot, but it’s only two large glasses of wine with a 12 per cent alcohol content.

And yet with younger generations, the trend is a steady move towards low alcohol or all-out abstinence, thanks to sobriety movements like Dry January and a steady stream of ‘non-alcoholic spirits’ becoming fashionable. Gen Z (those born after 1997) drink 20 per cent less per capita than millennials (aged between 25 and 40) did at their age. Millennials in turn drink around six per cent less than Gen X (born between 1965 and 1980). So why are we Gen Xers the last big drinkers? 

Maybe it’s inevitable. Our mums and grandmothers drank socially – albeit not to the same volume – so there was no taboo. But unlike them, we had additional freedoms, allowing us to drink more, more regularly. As Siobhan Peters of charity We Are With You explains, ‘We’re the first generation of women for whom alcohol became a regular part of life. We had more disposable income, possibly had children later and had time to build up wider social networks. There became a massive social acceptance around alcohol.’

Acceptance is an understatement. For my social circle, it’s an ingrained part of our lives. As teens we’d swig cider in the park; starting out in our careers, fighting to be on equal footing, my female colleagues and I enthusiastically followed the men to the pub at lunchtime. In the evenings, we caught up over a bottle (or two or three) in newly fashionable chains like All Bar One, designed to attract female drinkers by looking nothing like the gloomy, beer-stained pubs of the past. At the same time, it was all reinforced on the big screen and in the celebrity world: chardonnay-loving Bridget Jones, the Ab Fab pair, the Primrose Hill set and ‘ladettes’ Zoë Ball and Sara Cox.

Back then I dismissed those who tutted at boozing as killjoys. Why shouldn’t we party like the boys? The harmful health effects of heavy drinking, which include higher risks of stroke, liver and heart disease, either weren’t known about as much or we just didn’t want to know. I was shocked when a doctor friend explained that our bodies can’t take booze like men. Scientists have found that women produce lower levels of alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH), enzymes that break down alcohol. ‘It’s genetics, we can’t change it,’ says Peters.

As I entered my 30s, my ability to metabolise alcohol declined, hangovers became ever more vicious. Then I became pregnant and temporarily quit. The following years were reasonably abstemious, as my youngest woke me daily at 5am. For others, however, those full-on mummy years marked a turning point down the road to nightly wine o’clocks after the kids were asleep. Rare nights out with the girls became binge-drinking blowouts and a reward for endless days watching Teletubbies.

Again, culture celebrated this: look at the ‘wine o’clock’ pyjamas, the franchises such as Hurrah For Gin, with everything from books to tea towels showing a stick-woman mummy getting sozzled, and all the gin- and prosecco-themed gifts for women on websites such as Not On The High Street… And my card. 

The fact we’re choosing decent wine or spirits also makes the excess drinking seem acceptable – even highbrow. ‘Subconsciously, a lot of Gen X women think, “What I’m drinking is high quality, not shots, so that’s OK”, but to your body, it’s just alcohol,’ Peters says. It has given rise to a creeping number of so-called ‘grey area drinkers’, whose consumption levels sit somewhere on the blurry line between heavy, regular drinking and alcoholism.

Of course there are a number of Gen Xers who have now quit. Kate Moss, Sadie Frost and Zoë Ball are all now sober. ‘I couldn’t stop after a couple of beers; I had to go on and on until I was legless and the only way out was cold turkey,’ admits one friend, Fiona, 51. ‘You look around at all these middle-aged people talking nonsense and slurring, and wonder how you ever wanted to be part of that culture. I’m less anxious, it gives me more clarity. I no longer have high blood pressure.’

And yet research shows that a sizeable number of Gen X women have no intention of cutting back. Minna, 52, a civil servant in West Yorkshire, has drunk a bottle of wine ‘every night [after the children’s bedtime] for at least the past decade’, since her two children, now 14 and 10, were young. ‘I’d like to cut down, but when I try I get so grumpy – it’s easier for everyone to have me happy. My husband has once or twice mentioned I might think about cutting back but [my] response was so ferocious, it’ll be a while before he tries again. It’s not great, but wine is my reward for quite a challenging life.’

Research suggests that excessive alcohol consumption is contributing to as many as one in seven divorces. Lizzie, 56, is happily married, but her husband has had ‘stiff words’ with her over her drinking. Part of the problem, she says, is she feels isolated; her children are 23 and 19 and she hopes to return to work. ‘I get carried away at parties – I’m often quite lonely in the day and when I go out, I want to let loose and have fun in the limited window before everyone goes home to their babysitters. I can’t think of anything that makes me feel so good, so quickly. Though the next day is painful.’

Which sums up the difference between the generations. Whereas many Gen Xers are culturally attuned to popping open a bottle to celebrate, unwind or switch off, other age groups are programmed with different go-tos. According to Jan Gerber, CEO of rehab centres Paracelsus, ‘being fit and healthy is a trend for the younger generation’. True: my 14-year-old’s hero is healthy-eating guru Deliciously Ella; at her age I idolised Bananarama, said to be an inspiration for Absolutely Fabulous.

Social media plays a part too. Millennials and Gen Zers who grew up in an online world fear losing control and being ‘drunk shamed’ on Instagram and Snapchat, something my generation never had to contend with. 

So are we the last generation to really know how to party but also the last to know when to stop? Gerber isn’t convinced. He points out that millennials and Gen Zers still like their highs. ‘This generation is most likely to experiment with new chemicals and drugs, whose effects can be so much more profound or intense, they make alcohol look “boring”.’ But, he adds, that phase may be temporary. ‘[Maybe] they’ll reconsider their relationship with drugs – and alcohol makes an easy substitute; it’s legal, readily accessible…’

And writing this, 36 hours after a 50th birthday party that was a riotous blur of champagne, wine and vodka and coffee shots and a couple of hugely cathartic hours on the dancefloor, surrounded by ecstatic middle-aged former ravers, I can’t help thinking the occasional retro blowout still has its place.

Want to keep a check on your drinking? 

Six signs you may be drinking too much

  1. You set alcohol limits that you’re not able to meet.
  2. Others make comments about how much you drink.
  3. You get defensive about your drinking.
  4. You regularly use alcohol to de-stress or relax.
  5. You routinely can’t remember the night before due to drinking too much.
  6. You feel guilty and ashamed about drinking.

… And four steps to drinking less

  1. Keep a drinks diary of when, how much and where you drank.
  2. Start with a realistic goal – say, ‘I will have an extra drink-free day this week’, then follow this up with another.
  3. Measure your drinks – buy measuring cups if necessary.
  4. Don’t buy alcohol in bulk.

If you’re worried about your drinking or someone else’s, visit

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