It’s 4.30 on Friday afternoon and Nick Swifte is cracking open a beer with colleagues.
By his own admission, the 45-year-old advertising executive is a “drinker of some renown”.
“I like getting drunk. I’m a big fan of it. Working as a media buyer there is booze everywhere. Any function you go to, every achievement, every win, every loss, it’s all celebrated with booze. There’s as much of it as you want and it’s all free.”
Illustration: Matt Golding
This weekly ritual, played out in workplaces and bars around the country, is not a new phenomenon.
But in recent times, Swifte has noticed a change at Friday night drinks.
“If the beer and chips come out at 4.30, by 5.30 all the kids under 30 are gone,” he said.
“When we were starting out in our 20s if the office turned on booze you would literally sit around and drink until there was nothing left. Now the younger staff might have one beer or not drink at all.
“They just don’t seem to have the same alcohol focus as the era when I grew up.”
It’s an observation that neatly encapsulates an emerging shift in Australia’s drinking culture. An increasing number of young people are turning their back on alcohol. Yet, at the same time, older drinkers show no signs of slowing.
Experts warn the health burden for those in their 40s, 50s and 60s is starting to bite.
“This is almost an invisible group, partly because when people get older the pattern’s been entrenched for a long time it’s sort of seen as this is just what they do,” said Professor Jon Currie, director of the National Centre for the Neurobiological Treatment of Addiction.
There is now concern that while attention has been focused on binge drinking among young people, their parents and grandparents have quietly been drinking themselves into oblivion.
“Binge drinking in older people can become more risky even than in younger people because of falls, confusion, cognitive impairment. Even the ability to tolerate moderate drinking becomes much less in the older population,” Currie said.
“Their resilience is depleted and the damage that alcohol can do increases because there’s less reserve in terms of brain capacity.”
Generational changes in the way we drink can be seen in figures from the most recent Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s National Drug Strategy Household Survey – considered the most detailed snapshot of our nation’s legal and illegal substance use.
Between 2004 and 2013 the number of 12 to 17 year olds abstaining from alcohol rose from 54 per cent to 72 per cent, while binge drinking among this age group dropped.
And, although 18 to 24 year olds are still the group most likely to binge drink, the trend is on a downwards curve.
In 2013, 57 per cent were drinking more than four drinks in one sitting at least once a month, compared to 47 per cent in 2004.
The proportion drinking at very high levels – 11 drinks or more – has dropped from 24 to 18 per cent.
Among 18 to 39 year olds, the number at risk of alcohol-related harm on a single occasion, or drinking in a way that puts them at long-term health risk, has continued to drop in the past five surveys, carried out every two to three years.
Conversely, over the past decade there has been little change in alcohol consumption in the over 40s and, in some older age groups, it is gradually increasing.
Among 40 to 49 year olds, 31 per cent are binge drinking once a month or more, compared with 29 per cent in 2004, and 27 per cent in 2001.
Those aged over 70 are the most likely to drink every day.
“Alcohol blunts all of life’s little disappointments. As you get older there’s more pain, there’s arthritis, there’s hips, there’s aches, there’s often depression, the finishing of careers, boredom and feeling of loss, impending mortality. All of these are immense drivers towards drinking,” said Currie, former chairman of the committee that produced Australia’s current alcohol guidelines.
Overall consumption dropping but risky drinking remains high
His concerns seem hard to reconcile with figures released in May by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, revealing alcohol consumption is at its lowest level in 50 years.
The alcohol industry trumpeted the 2013-14 data as proof Australia’s binge drinking problem had been inflated by an over-zealous public health lobby.
But the picture is more nuanced than the figures suggest.
This is just one small, minuscule example of the problem with today’s youth. Now I’m well documented in saying that I am apart of this shitty generation that they call millennials. I cannot deny that. But that also gives me an inside look into why shit like this is actually happening. And that is because we’re all pussies, plain and simple. Why do you think everything that gets said on the internet gets turned into the PC police? Why do you think you aren’t allowed to make fun of fat people anymore? Because the millennials are ruthless, PC-oriented, vanilla pussies. So it makes perfect sense that more people my age turn to pills and weed than drinking alcohol. Sure weed is great and Molly can be cool. But alcohol is your best friend in all situations. Booze stands by you no matter the situation or the consequences. But we would rather pop a Molly then complain about a gender-shaming slur we saw on twitter than we would drink a couple beers and have a great conversation with our buddies. It’s fucking horrible. So yes, of course the middle aged of America are not only drinking more, but are bingeing more because they see how the young-ins of America are growing up and it is god damn depressing.