Wellington’s streets have been flooded with 18- to 24-year-olds, back for their studies in the city. On their minds: Getting to lectures on time, making their student loan stretch, and figuring out what to do for the rest of their lives. On their lips: The taste of Diesel beer, Scrumpy and $10 bottles of rosé wine.

Traditionally, drinking was seen as a rite of passage at university. By the weekend – or even the end of lectures – students would be itching for a drink, to let loose and get up to antics with new friends.

According to recent reports, however, young people are drinking less than ever.

Last year, University of Otago public health researcher Dr Jude Ball reported fewer Kiwi teenagers aged 14-17 were drinking alcohol than 20 years ago. The percentage of secondary school students who reported never drinking alcohol dropped from 82 percent in 2001 to 55 percent in 2019.

However, Ball says if that trend were to flow into adulthood, it would have been seen already.

“But there hasn’t been a really obvious shift in drinking among the 18- to 24-year-olds – except in the last year – and we don’t know yet if that’s a genuine change or a statistical blip.

“In my lifetime anyway, there’s always been a pattern of young people starting experimenting with drinking, usually in adolescence, and then it ramping up in young adulthood, particularly binge drinking.”

Ball says binge drinking tended to drop again in older adulthood, where middle-aged people drink more often but less hazardously.

Why do young people drink?

Young women, their lashes thick with mascara, walk arm and arm, giggling as they quickly down drinks. Groups of gangly guys with hands in their pockets saunter down the street.

Too-tipsy people engaged in candid conversations are appealing to bouncers.

There is chatter, booming bass lines echoing against the surrounding high-rise buildings, police sirens wailing. Empty cans rolling down the pavement are caught by the omnipresent Wellington wind.

It’s just another Saturday night on the strip: Wellington’s Courtenay Pl.

Most young adults who spoke to RNZ had never thought about why they drink. Some say it is just part of Aotearoa’s culture, others attribute it to their situation – finding themselves in new places where they meet new people and need something to calm the nerves and boost confidence.

First year student Daniel tells RNZ that drinking allows you to have fun without having to worry about the usual life stressors.

“It’s also about the environment, it’s part of the vibes. If it’s a sunny day, you’re like, ‘Let’s have a beer’, or you get a new job so, ‘Let’s go celebrate with a few drinks’ – that’s the norm.

“I think that some people like to drink because of the community and sense of togetherness that it brings. You’re sitting in a garage, having a jam, having a few drinks and it’s a way to unwind.”

There are also the cultural norms and traditions associated with the transition into adulthood which involve alcohol. For example, the Yardie when you turn 21, and the various university events which have a strong alcohol focus.

Ball says that for many young people, it’s usually the first time they have experienced the freedom of living away from home and earning money paired with an active social life.

“And we do have a culture where drinking is associated with socialising and fun.”

Victoria University of Wellington Student Association president Marcail Parkinson says on a night out, she would consume six to seven drinks.

“Not too much, and it’s not a regular occurrence.

“Although that was very different when I was a first year at university. When you’re in your first year, the same as when you’ve just turned 18, it’s a bit of a rite of passage to get wasted and go out with your friends.”

Parkinson says the university hall environment can be conducive to drinking.

“With the opportunity to have a couple of drinks most nights in halls, it’s an easy way to socialise and meet new people. It breaks down barriers and can help people open up a bit more, helping with any social anxiety.”

Ball agrees that some young people feel like they can manage their social anxiety with alcohol.

“Liquid confidence can be seen as helpful in new social environments.”

Hana Hana Pilkinton-Ching, right.

VUWSA engagement vice president Hana Pilkinton-Ching says with alcohol, you feel less worried.

“Especially if you’re at a public and social setting like you’re out at a gig, you feel like it enables you to have a good time without having the worries that come with being in those environments otherwise.”

Sober curious

Pilkinton-Ching says she is currently experimenting with being sober.

“I really want to be comfortable in those environments like festivals and gigs where you’d usually drink.

“I know rationally no one is paying attention to you or what you’re doing but if you’re so used to always being drunk or [drunk] in those environments, then it does feel quite different.”

Post-graduate student Ryan says he’s been sober for six months but has been struggling to engage in events where people usually drink.

“I tend to leave parties earlier as it just isn’t as fun. It’s hard when everyone else is drunk and you’re not. The conversations are different and you can’t relate to what they’re feeling and what’s going on.”

First-year student Maya tells RNZ she does not drink as she simply does not enjoy it.

She takes great pride in being able to keep her friends safe during the night.

Her friend Elisa says no one gets judged for being sober at parties.

“We’re the ones keeping everyone safe, so they’re kind of thankful for us – making sure they don’t go too far.”

First-year Sophie tells RNZ she drinks to ease her nerves. She hasn’t noticed more of her peers choosing to be sober.

“But, I think it’s become more normalised that you can choose either way and not be judged for it.”

Predictions for the future

Ball says society in general and young people, in particular, are much more aware of the downsides of alcohol than a generation ago.

“I think there is a critical reflection on whether alcohol is good for you, with more young people rejecting alcohol or deliberately choosing to drink more moderately.”

She thinks this is a positive thing.

Parkinson says she thinks most young people tend to slow down their drinking as they get older.

“I have a couple of friends who have gone completely sober in the last few years because they didn’t like the way they felt and acted under the influence.”

Ball says in terms of the 18-24 age group, it’s “really interesting” looking at overseas trends as in almost all high-income countries, there has been a decline in adolescent drinking.

“In some countries that carries through to young adulthood. However, in other countries, young people seem to catch up to previous generations by 18, so drinking patterns are similar to what they were a generation ago.”

However, she isn’t sure yet which pattern New Zealand will fall into.

“Based on the limited evidence we’ve got, we seem to be more on the catching up by young adulthood, but this could change.”

The most important thing is to continue creating spaces where people do not have to drink to connect, she says.

By Samantha Mythen for rnz.co.nz