Culture and trends
min read

Wellness, Hedonism & The Rise of The Sober Curious Gen Zer

Published on
March 12, 2024
Last updated
March 12, 2024

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Few things used to characterize the student experience as much as the anticipation of a night out. 

£2 VKs, sticky floors, a terrible last minute costume for a terrible sports night theme. A wince-inducing hangover on a Thursday morning. Binge-watching Skins and Gossip Girl. Smudged eyeliner for an extra spicy aesthetic. 

Fast-forward ten years, it appears that binge-drinking has undergone something of a PR crisis. 

Today’s young consumers are telling anyone and everyone that they’re “in their wellness era”. They’re trading nightclubs for 5Ks, and are more interested in logging miles on Strava than they are documenting their nights out on Instagram. 

What exactly has driven this cultural shift? Has hedonism got a new face, in the era of greens influencing and alcohol-free alternatives? Are young people simply too skint to afford the same pleasures as before? Or would they rather spend their money on less transient forms of happiness?

The push on mental wellbeing

Chatting candidly into her front camera, creator Kali says ““All of my plans revolved around drinking. I was only really happy when I was a little bit tipsy”. 

“I was sad, anxious, depressed”, she continues. She shares that binge-drinking made her disorientated – “I was convinced once that I was in Paris. I wasn’t. I was in London”. 

Her comments are flooded with messages of support. One user shares that they gave up drinking a few years ago for the same reasons. Another writes that they’re “on a sober curious journey”, and that Kali’s video has “honestly made me feel excited about it”. 

Kali is one of many Gen Z creators who have shared stories about going sober. Initially (and maybe ironically), she built her platform for the opposite reasons: oversharing to thousands about her binge-drinking escapades.

Her mindset switch is indicative of a bigger shift. Young people are acutely aware of their mental health, and they’re taking big steps to protect it

Last year, we surveyed 2,000 Gen Zers in the UK and US on this topic.

40% of participants said that they would consider giving up alcohol completely. 35% said that alcohol had a negative impact on their mental health, whilst 41% said they’d experienced anxiety after drinking with friends. 

Much of the same was corroborated in qualitative research. Emma*, 21, shared that she’d cut down on her alcohol intake because her hangovers were so bad she “didn’t want to live like this anymore”.

This shift is tied to new iterations of wellness

Gen Z “are more conscious of what enhances and inhibits their senses”, shares Liz Cheesbrough, Business Director of The Good Side, a cultural insight agency. 

Liz notes that the pandemic played a role as a “circuit breaker” here. It allowed young consumers to “reappraise the role of alcohol and the pressures of conventions”.

She is right to flag the pandemic as an important moment. Lockdowns prevented access to healthcare facilities, leading to a surge in self-reliance on health. Interest in nutrition skyrocketed, whilst closures of gyms saw many take to local parks. Since then, it appears that wellness has taken on a new face: hedonism.

No one knows this more than Rory McEntee, Marketing Director at Gymbox. 

Gymbox has carved a name for itself as a disruptor brand. It’s not just a gym: it’s a lifestyle and an experience; with strobe lights, state-of-the-art equipment, and classes ranging from “holistic to sadistic”, according to him.

“We were the first to offer ‘rave’ classes: workouts with the vibes of a nightclub, complete with a DJ”, Rory shares. “We continually introduce creative and social sharing classes to keep our offerings unique, tapping into the needs of Gen Z, who are always looking for something new.” 

The idea of an all-encompassing and exciting fitness experience is highlighted by Sam, a member of Gymbox.

Frequently using the workout facilities, he’s also a keen martial arts trainer, noting that “even if you’re a beginner at any stage, it’s inclusive”. 

He stresses the importance of “an experience” when it comes to fitness. Interestingly, despite the ongoing cost-of-living crisis, this is something young consumers are willing to prioritize over price point: over half of Gen Z would pay more for something if it ensured a good experience.

Ever gone clubbing sober? If you have, did you enjoy it?

Every year, January approaches in a cloud of thick London smog. 

I’m skint, my jeans are tight, and summer evenings feel as distant as Antarctica. Scrolling isn’t an option: social media is awash with “New Year, New Me”. Predictably, I fell into the Dry January trap. I told myself it was a chance to save money, to sleep better, to actually make it to a 9am Saturday HIIT class. And – to an extent – it was great. 31 days later, I’d miraculously completed it. 

It was also the dawn of two related realizations. Or, two conditional statements, if you will.

  1. I am capable of going to the pub stone cold sober.
  2. Drunk people are incredibly annoying when you’re stone cold sober.

My friend told me the same story four times. Another spilled half a bottle of Prosecco down my trousers. For the first time, I was the responsible adult in the Uber, shooting the driver a sheepish look, and profusely apologizing for the carnage in the back seats. A bit self-righteous, in hindsight, considering my current rating. Anyway: the point stands. Drunk people are annoying. 

But when so much of adult socializing revolves around alcohol, is this something sober Gen Zers are just going to have to have to live with? Well, yes and no.

Introducing the sober rave

House of Happiness, Morning Gloryville, Dry Disco: they’re popping up left, right and rhubarb. 

In the UK, tickets for Dry Disco, an alcohol-free day festival created by Millie Gooch (founder of Sober Girl Society) and Steph Elswood, a wellness entrepreneur, sold out a few days after launch. 

The female-only event, held in the iconic Ministry of Sound nightclub, had all the markings of a great night out: a glitter-strewn dance floor, pumping tunes, food stalls, a fully stocked bar. One hit wonders were resigned only to the playlist: Dry Disco was such a triumph that it’s now a regular occurrence. In an interview, Steph shared that the success “left her in awe”. 

Over in the US, Club 164 pertains to “making sober clubbing fun since 2021”.

Chelsie Cahoon, known by her Instagram handle The Sober Raver, frequently talks about the benefits of a sober lifestyle (a lifestyle not native to the rave scene, generally). “Drug test for work? Sure! You can drive yourself home? Yep! Feel more energized? Absolutely. There are literally so many benefits that I could talk all day about it” she shared to EDM.com

How are brands tapping into this?

So, it’s clear: there’s a big appetite in the live events scene. As a result, brands are stepping up and taking note. Imitation-based, nootropics, CBD: the alcohol-free market is booming. 

Ellie Webb, a Bristol-based entrepreneur, founded Caleno Drinks after she became sick of drinking tap water on nights out.

43% of Gen Z drink to socialize: and Caleno’s marketing strategy taps into this. In fact, their tagline is literally “the joy of not drinking”. One TikTok shows a user dancing in a nightclub, with the text “it’s Saturday night, and you aren’t drinking tonight, but you’re still hitting the dancefloor”. 

Another talks about the tradition of ending a night out with a takeaway; implying this doesn’t have to be forgotten just because you’re not drinking. Unsurprisingly, the account is run by a Gen Z.

Outside of imitation-based alternatives, there’s been a boom in drinks marketed with a wellness element.

Bella Hadid has dipped her toes into this arena. Her brand Kin Euphorics describes itself as a ‘non-alcoholic, functional beverage designed using ingredients that nourish the mind and body’. Very LA. 

TRIP, a CBD-infused drink created by Olivia and Daniel Khoury, was born after they noticed the void in the market for “quality CBD products that promote wellness by reducing stress”. 

The packaging is clean, aesthetic and minimal. Olivia credits the demand for these kinds of alternatives to the pandemic, sharing its impact on people’s perception of health and mental wellness created “a perfect storm”. TRIP is a raging success with Gen Z: 1 in 2 have tried the product. 

How marketers can tap into this cultural shift

Ahh – the reason you’ve probably got this far. How exactly can marketers harness these insights and capture the spend of Gen Z (or Gen Zen)?!

Forget the drunk student stereotype

It’s official: binge-drinking has lost its edge. In fact, it’s sort of teetering on the edges of being “uncool”. And whilst noughties advertising might’ve capitalized on necking K-ciders, cheap beer and frat parties, this kind of marketing is… well, a bit cringe these days.

Today’s students are unlikely to be won over by the drunk student stereotype: they’re less project X, and more project “me”.

Mental health is a high priority, so don’t let it become invisible in your efforts

The stats around mental health and young consumers make for pretty bleak reading. 

46% of Gen Z consider themselves to have a mental health condition, whilst 54% have never had professional counseling or therapy. Young consumers have a nuanced understanding of their mental health – and they’d rather skip out on a big night out if it comes with the risk of not safeguarding this. 

Dipika Saggi, Marketing Manager at CALM shared that “having the right tools, people to talk to and a society that welcomes vulnerability can be literally lifesaving”. This isn’t just confined to individuals, either: 71% of Gen Z want brands to talk about mental health in their advertising.

Young consumers aren’t boring, they’re just changing

We know that young consumers are still craving experiences – and fun ones at that, too.

They might be forgoing the G&T’s, but this doesn’t mean they don't want to socialize.

Incorporate new things into spaces associated with drinking. Work with creators who champion alternative options. And for goodness sake: don’t write off this demographic as “boring” – they’re far from it. 

You can catch Rory McEntee’s session “The Next Gen Utopia: The Transformation Economy” at YMS London, where he shares the stage with Alice Ratcliffe, Head of Brand at TRIP and Paul McEntee, founder of Here Be Dragons.

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