How do you solve a problem like middle-class drinking?

Affluent middle-aged men are consuming alcohol at dangerously high rates, according to recent research by Kings College London.

The audit of alcohol intake, which focused on residents in Lambeth, drew the surprising conclusion that it was “Baby Boomers becoming Seniors” who were most at risk – with white, middle-aged men among the “wealthier and better educated” sections of society upping their alcohol content just as their bodies start to slow down.

The advanced age of those at risk is surprising, especially in an inner-city borough like Lambeth, where one might expect younger demographics to be making the headlines alcohol-wise. Dr Tony Rao, lead author of the study, attributes the findings in part to men in their 50s and 60s putting off retirement far longer than they once would have done.

But while the UK’s ageing population unquestionable plays a part, this is a question of middle-class drinking as much as later life boozing. Heavy drinkers from higher socioeconomic groups are increasingly a public health concern which we cannot ignore; while affluent drinkers may hit the bottle in a more genteel or private way, they are no less susceptible to the medical problems that come with heavy drinking.

Last year at TCC we sought to explore the problem of middle-class alcohol intake on behalf of a local authority which forms part of London’s commuter belt. The area’s suburban veneer belied its high booze intake, and we worked with the council to understand why drinking was quite so prevalent – and to try and reduce the problem.

The complexity of the issue cannot be underestimated. The question of why people with ostensibly well-balanced and successful lives would drink to such excess is hard to explain using the traditional, rational “economics man” orthodoxy.

The key motivations for at-risk drinking thrown up during our research chimed in many ways with Kings College’s findings. Stress and the absence of a work-life balance came up repeatedly, with one person we interviewed telling us “wine is your relaxation – it can feel like your saviour!” We may have conducted our fieldwork in ‘metroland’ rather than Zone One, but the commuter belt respondents who we were interviewing often worked in central London and were just as time-poor as their Lambeth-dwelling colleagues.

As well as professional stresses, there was a degree of status anxiety at play too. “It’s hard – you want your kids to do well and everyone is working hard to achieve a certain standard of living,” said one heavy drinker. Many we spoke to were aspirational Prospectors, concerned about the esteem of others.

The curious thing about our drinkers was that, alcohol aside, they led healthy lives. They worked hard. They ate well. They sometimes went jogging. Indeed, in many ways they saw drinking as part of a ‘healthy life’ – a tonic to ‘workoholism’, and thus a way of restoring work-life equilibrium. This is atypical, and perhaps shows why middle-class boozing is such a tricky issue to spot or to solve; with most at-risk drinking the alcohol comes hand-in-hand with other vices.

As with the Lambeth data, it was again men more than women who were vulnerable. A lot of drinking, we found, took place with partners rather than friends or colleagues. It was more often than not the male partner who initiated it. And it usually took place in the home. People tended to feel a degree of immunity at home – that they weren’t inflicting their drinking on others, or subjecting themselves to the judgement of strangers.

It was partner-drinking and at-home drinking which led to one of our most successful interventions. And it was through speaking to female partners – who were often the more reluctant party – that we began to make headway.

We decided to run a peer led intervention where women developed a social norm between themselves – first with other female participants, in the group environment, and with their partners, at home.

We knew for our research that total abstinence would not work, so instead we focused on ratio based rules like ‘5:2’ or time based ones like ‘after 8’. This built on the ‘cutting down’ style approaches people were already taking – rather than asking them to go cold turkey. And it focused on social norms – something which was important to a lot of those we spoke to.

We used digital tools like WhatsApp so that the workshoppees could stay in contact. This gave an element of light competition – chiming with Prospector values – but also a sense of teamwork and support. The hope was that both partners would cut down if one did.

The intervention went well, and people liked the peer-to-peer element. “Whatsapp was great,” said one person, talking about it afterwards. “I got the ding I thought ‘I’m not having a drink’. It was a nice bit of friendly competition.”

With 2015’s highly ‘young professionals’ adept when it comes to burning the candle at both ends, the problem of middle-class boozing is a public health issue which could apply to the next generation even more than to the present one. It’s a hard problem to solve, but also a fascinating one. There is no catch-all solution, so we will all have to think creatively about ways of addressing it that fit around the complexities of modern life.

Rosanna Post is Head of Behaviour Change and Business Development at the campaign company, and heads up a lot of our projects on alcohol and public health

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