Giving you the insight into matters directly related to student life is the Pi Comment column, Spotlight: UCL, Universities and Young People, where our team of columnists the tackle issues affecting students today. Alexandra Hill investigates the drop in alcohol consumption for the current generation of teens and young adults, and whether it has really impacted university drinking culture.
Compared to Millennials, Generation Z, the current generation of teenagers and young adults born after 1995, drink comparatively less. Many more of us are teetotal and among those of us that do drink, our alcohol consumption is consistently lower than our Millennial counterparts.
Confusingly, this image of alleged teetotalism amongst Gen Z is juxtaposed with the widely propagated stereotype of student drinking culture, which continually emphasises the alcohol-centric nature of university life. Upon arrival in freshers’ week, one is immediately bombarded with a myriad of student shot deals as well as numerous societies bribing in freshers with promises of free drinks at their welcome events. Before the headline freshers’ events at Ministry of Sound, the inevitable pre-drinking and drinking games dominated the kitchens and common rooms within student accommodation, to such a degree that you wondered how people even made it in one piece to the club when the event actually started. The morning after the event, alongside bottles of vodka and wine being dispersed around UCL, it would not be uncommon to see puddles of sick on the pavement. Such a pattern continues to persist beyond fresher’s week with the Students’ Union continuously inventing and promoting drink offers under the inevitable array of interesting slogans.
University drinking culture is well documented within the public domain. A recent NUS alcohol consumption survey stated that 50% of students drunk at least once a week and 25% claimed that they get drunk at the same frequency. Bearing in mind that these figures are likely to be a conservative estimate, given that people may not always be completely honest in relation to their drinking habits, they still indicate that alcohol consumption, often excessive, remains an integral part of many students’ experience of university.
Perhaps of greater concern than these statistics, in relation to alcohol consumption, are students’ perception of university drinking culture. According to the same survey, a huge 79% of students felt that drinking and getting drunk were a part of university culture. Drinking culture at university, to a large extent self-perpetuating thanks to such engrained images of student drinking, becomes an expectation on new students, many feeling they need to fulfil the stereotype and live up to the image.
Another dimension of university drinking culture is the clear distinction that is drawn within student circles between just ‘drinking’ and ‘drinking to get drunk’. It seems to many that alcohol has become a means to getting completely hammered and ‘out of it’ as opposed to being a nice complement to a social situation. Instead of simply enjoying a casual drink out with friends, a night out instead becomes the most efficient way to get drunk at the least expense: from loading up on pre-drinks, opting for shots over pints and even ‘strawpedoing’ – drinking alcohol using a straw as a means of getting drunk quicker.
Considering both how alcohol-orientated university is and the fact that alcohol consumption becomes centred on getting drunk, how can we rationalise this alongside the well-documented trend of Gen Z’s supposed reduced alcoholic consumption?
Student drinking culture seems at least part of the explanation. In fact, a study from Alcohol Research UK found that young people who progress into higher education are more likely to have higher levels of alcohol consumption than their peers in the general population. So, although alcohol consumption as a whole may have fallen amongst Generation Z, it seems that student culture continues to bolster the importance of alcohol and sustain its synonymity with university life. Unfortunately, the relationship with alcohol in this culture seems not to be simply one where alcohol is perceived as an accompaniment to social situations, but one in which alcohol is merely a mechanism for intoxication.
Gen Z may indeed be drinking less, but whether the university and student community are matching the trend is less evident. The reduction in alcohol consumption amongst Generation Z is therefore likely to be a combination of the increasing demographic of young people who choose not to progress into higher education and their typically reduced drinking habits, rather than it being a significant change in alcohol consumption and behaviour within universities. In the meantime unfortunately, with binge drinking, excessive emphasis on alcohol at university and the overt focus on getting drunk all being somewhat counterproductive in establishing moderate and non-obsessive drinking habits for later life, there is unquestionably still a way to go before we can say alcohol is a healthy element of the student experience.