24-year-old Adam Dempsey is one of the growing demographic of the sober young, the Generation Z adults who are alcohol free, but it wasn’t always thus. Six years ago he was drinking himself into black-outs and another stubborn statistic, that of young men who drink to hazardous levels.

“To be honest a lot of my story revolves around drugs as well as alcohol,” he said. “Cocaine in particular, because nowadays they just go hand in hand. Probably the first time I ever drank properly, I blacked out. Then that’s the way it went almost every weekend. More often than not I would drink till I was black-out drunk and I thought for a while that that was what happened with everybody. It was normal.”

The overall story generally told about the young in Scotland, and in other European countries, is that alcohol consumption is falling. Generation-Z is drinking less than generations before.

But the data reveals a more complex story, one in which drinking habits are polarising. Between 2017 and 2022, the number of non-drinkers between the ages of 16 and 24 rose from 16% to 23%. But in that period hazardous drinking dropped just 1% from 27% to 26%. Amongst young men levels of hazardous drinking even rose, from 35% to 37%.

There are, in other words, more non-drinkers, and a rise in sober social media, club nights, like Glasgow's Good Clean Fun and a culture of light drinking, not just amongst Generation Z but also Millennials and the middle-aged. But binge drinking is still common amongst the young.

“Drinking in the young,” said Dr Alastair MacGilchrist, a liver doctor and chair of Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems, “is quite a complicated picture. The number of people drinking has been generally going down in the young and that’s a trend throughout the western world. There are more teetotallers now in the under 25s than there ever were.”

He added: “Underage drinking is less of a problem than it was two decades ago – but binge drinking is still prevalent. ”

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What’s clear nevertheless is that the last decade has seen the rise of sober culture and the ‘sober curious’ across many age groups, alongside a growth in sober Instagram. Young people are seeing the biggest rises - and this appears to be regardless of socioeconomic status.

Amongst those teens with a cautious approach to drinking is Zoe, an 18-year-old, whose mother, now alcohol-free, previously drank in excess. She observed, “Watching someone you love lose themself to alcohol is heart-breaking to watch. Because of this, I do not believe that alcohol should be normalised the way that it is.”

However, she said: “Drinking culture is still a massive thing in younger generations.... Some people I know will drink a lot on a night out to cope with poor mental health. I feel as if in my generation majority of people are struggling badly with mental health, and drinking is a way that some may cope with this.”

‘Sober’ is also not yet a popular term in Scotland – and this is something that the Substance Research Group at Glasgow Caledonia University, led by Professor Carol Emslie, are keen to address.

Prof Emslie said: “We are working with American researchers, and our early findings suggest that terms like ‘sober curiosity’ do not translate well in Scotland. People immediately latch on to the ‘sober’ part, and are not interested. So we need to find new terms so we can encourage people to become more aware of their drinking behaviours.”

Levels of hazardous drinking in young men, she noted, continue to cause concern and researchers on the team are currently looking at how to target the group.  One project is interviewing young men who are lighter drinkers, looking at the strategies they used to forge and maintain friendships with other men, given the centrality of alcohol in men’s friendships.

Some sober Gen-Zers like Adam Dempsey have arrived at an alcohol-free life following addiction - and have therefore seen both sides of this polarised story. Now sober, with a partner and baby, Dempsey quit alcohol and cocaine six years ago with the help of Cocaine Anonymous.

He wasn’t, he recalled, an early drinker. “I didn’t start drinking till 16 or 17, which by West of Scotland is later than average. I thought I needed to catch up and it started becoming every weekend, going out drinking, different house parties, and all the kind of buzz that came with it. I thrived off that.”

At 18 years old, whilst at university studying Maths, Statistics and Finance, he recalled, “I very quickly burned my life to the ground.”

“I just started living weekend to weekend and not really caring what was going on in the middle. I would never go to my university lectures. I would go and sit in the student union, drink, play pool  and then at night go out with my friends and drink and take drugs.”

After being thrown out of university, Dempsey  joined the Merchant Navy, which has a strict no drug and alcohol policy – and was kicked out when caught taking drink and drugs. It was at that point he broke down and decided to quit – turning to Cocaine Anonymous to help his recovery.

At the heart of Dempsey's sober life is an outdoor activity and recovery group, Max Kolbe, which revolves around physical adventures like swimming and hiking. It's one of many sober-oriented groups - another was the Polar Bears -  that I came across when I was writing a book about outdoor swimming, The Ripple Effect. Dempsey said he turned to it because he was looking for something exciting around which to pin a social life.

“I think,” he said, “we have a culture that’s so surrounded by alcohol.  When you want to distance yourself from that I think you need to find something different to spend your weekends doing.”

The result is that many turn to the outdoors - running groups, hiking, swimming. That's there in student culture too.  The founder of a student wild swimming group, The Edinburgh University Blue Tits, Tinka Hughes,  said that part of her aim had been to create a social event that did not revolve around the intense drinking culture. 

The Herald: Tinka Hughes, third from left, photographed for The Ripple Effect bookTinka Hughes, third from left, photographed for The Ripple Effect book (Image: Anna Deacon)

Meanwhile, sober culture is also growing amongst Millennials – and a shift is represented there too in the data. Between 2017 and 2022, the number of non-drinkers rose amongst 25-34 year olds from 14% to 17%, and amongst 35-44 year olds from 15% to 18%.

Often the sober cite the digital world as a key support.  41-year-old Paul Stewart, a father of two and cybersecurity manager, described how he had "completed canned” alcohol four months ago, after decades of being a nightly drinker of “one to three drinks” a night rising to “three to four” at the weekend.

The Herald: Paul Stewart stipped drinking four months agoPaul Stewart stipped drinking four months ago (Image: Paul Stewart)

Like many of the alcohol-free I spoke to, Paul had been inspired by podcasts. “ I’ve  immersed myself in lots of information, listened to a lot of podcasts, joined groups. reached out to others.”

Mr Stewart is also a member of the growing Sober And Curious Community Scotland on Facebook, a key networking group that is part of a rising wave of sober social media.

Also on Sober And Curious is 34-year-old Rachael Hill, who recently moved from Newcastle to Edinburgh and observed that “there seem to be much more sober offerings” in the Scottish capital.

Hill, who stopped drinking two years ago recalled that she had started early, at 13.  “ From then on I loved it. As a teenager I felt it really helped with social anxiety. I was growing up as a gay person, drinking regularly. And then got to the point of where I would be sharing a bottle of whisky with a friend instead of going to school.”

The Herald: Rachael Hill stopped drinking two years agoRachael Hill stopped drinking two years ago (Image: Rachael Hill)

She later went on to become a nurse “Three years ago it really became a problem. The wheels were coming off. Because I have ADHD,  I was listening to a podcast one day in which Annie Mac was talking with her husband about ADHD and alcohol and I’ve not drunk since then."

Since quitting she has a new-found confidence and a different approach to her social life and friendships. Like others, she values the support of the sober community.

“I started looking at sober groups," she said, "because I knew that it was something I couldn’t continue alone. I knew in order to stay stopped I needed to be with people who are not in a drinking culture. I will literally try anything as long as it’s not alcohol-related now.  I walk daily. I meditate. I’m forever making new friends because I’m more confident to do that. I feel like I’ve been born again, frankly.”