We’ve cut down on boozing, smoking and sex, while continuing to indulge our obsession with yoga and juice bars. Stylist’s Alexandra Jones investigates where all the hedonists are hiding
Photography: Dennis Pedersen
Kate Moss: the poster woman for every good night out you’ve ever had. Impossibly glamorous, constantly smoking, often laughing, likely dancing. For the past 20 years she has reigned in our hearts as a sophisticated party pin-up, the woman we have been desperate to emulate because, well, she always looks like she’s having the time of her life.
Casting an eye across our current cultural landscape, it’s hard to find anyone to match Mossy. Where did all the hedonists go? As a nation we used to be renowned for our ability to party: Britain, the birthplace of modern pop music, of rock ’n’ roll and acid house. Recently, though, it’s all become a little more... sedate. In the Stylist office alone, conversations most often turn to intensive HIIT sessions and the allure of an allotment. Nightclubbing’s out; bingo is in. The mood of a nation has well and truly changed. The question is, how? Well, this is our theory in eight bite-sized chunks.
1. Disco is so dead
Dancing under an abrasive strobe, slicked in the sweat of 200 other people, has resolutely lost its lustre. The number of nightclubs in UK has halved since 2005 – from 3,144 to just 1,733. From Manchester’s infamous Hacienda in 1997 through to the closure of legendary Glasgow venue The Arches in 2015 and the recent demise of London super-club Fabric (which has since reopened), it seems that going ‘out out’ is over. It might be tempting to dismiss this as no big deal, but nightlife in the UK has been the driving force of pop culture (and subcultures) for decades, inspiring fashions, hairstyles and tabloid headlines. Nineties club kids were dressing up at BoomBox; now, the way we congregate, peacock and share our dissatisfaction with the system is digital – #revolution doesn’t take quite so much effort. Musically, each movement now comes to us via playlists cleverly curated by an all-knowing algorithm (ie Spotify), which means that finding music through community – at record stores or dance halls – is lost. As Dr Sarah E Johns, senior lecturer in evolutionary anthropology at the University of Kent explains, “It’s not necessarily that we’re socialising less, it’s just that it’s less visible. We’re constantly in contact with our friends, so plans are more fluid. In the past, to socialise you needed a location and a time – that’s where clubs came in. There’s not a need for that now.”
In response, clubs are branding or rebranding themselves as unique, quirky arts spaces and hosting hugely popular bingo nights such as Bongo’s Bingo, which now hosts events in eight UK cities, or being turned into ‘flats with a wild history’ – their legacy doomed to a sign in the lobby. Some people blame it on the recession and longer working hours. But even if you did go out, would you rather just be in bed watching Insta Stories?
2. Food is the new rock ’n’ roll
What we eat, how and when has become a succinctly coded way of telling others that we are cool, we have taste, that we know our sh*t. “Food has become a status symbol,” explains Johns. “There’s a prestige and morality associated with food that never existed before – ‘I’m eating clean, healthy food that’s organically produced, locally sourced and small-batch’. It’s an anti-consumerist mentality. And these choices somehow make you morally superior.” Which means we rarely go for a drink that doesn’t involve food. On average, we now eat out twice a week. Our Instagram feeds – full of food trucks, street markets and Michelin-starred eateries – stand as testament to our adoration for the good stuff. We clamour to tell our peers about the, like, amazing savoury donuts we had last weekend, #food (211m tags) #foodporn (116m tags), because they are a small affirmation of our personal brand values.
Even our takeaways are awash with artisan consumables. In its second year of trading, Deliveroo was averaging 25% month-on-month growth and is now aiming for ‘unicorn’ status (meaning it’ll be a start-up worth $1bn) – all for delivering the kind of food we can talk about the next day, probably over dinner. Admittedly, spending £70 on a takeaway is its own kind of hedonism, though it’s hard to explain that to your mum, who spent the years 1968 to 1971 taking acid and practising free love.
3. Being booze- and drug-free is a status symbol
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) recently reported that average weekly spend on alcohol, cigarettes and narcotics has fallen below £12 for the first time ever. Thanks to the rise of alcohol-free spirits like Seedlip, bottled herbal martinis and no-booze bars, being dry garners as much kudos as going vegan. As futurologist Dr Morgaine Gaye pointed out, when brands as big as Guinness create non-alcoholic beers, we can safely assume alcohol is on the decline. And, according to statistics from the Home Office, so are the Class As: around 1 in 12 adults (8.4%) have taken drugs in the last year – significantly lower than a decade ago when that figure was around 1 in 10 (10.5%).
On a practical level, the smoking ban – 10 years old in July – means that having a cigarette is almost too inconvenient to bear. “Government health initiatives have certainly had an impact,” says Johns. “From a marketing perspective, the fact that cigarettes are so restricted nowadays sends a very clear signal to the consumer: don’t do this, it will kill you.”
And while they haven’t been subject to quite so much government attention, hangovers are equally inconvenient. They’re also painfully at odds with the cult of productivity that has ruled our working lives for the past 10 years. Somewhere among the innumerable apps, software and books (think The 4-Hour Work Week or Slack messages), being productive became an end unto itself. Put simply, we like to be busy – and downing a vat of wine during a boozy working lunch does not a busy bee make. Who even has that kind of time?
4. Our idols are serious. Or superhuman
Around two thirds of us plan to start our own businesses within the next five years. And growing numbers of us mix our day jobs with ‘side hustles’ – top-up jobs that speak to our passions as much as our bank balances (think consulting or perhaps dehydrating kelp and selling it as an alternative to pasta. Yum.)
According to a recent study in Harvard Business Review, becoming the CEOs of our own companies at increasingly young ages has become de rigueur thanks in large part to the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Kevin Systrom. Their stories of young, disruptive entrepreneurialism have become the benchmarks for success in our time. Compare this to the likes of Lynne Franks, the PR guru who inspired the Ab Fab character Edina in the Eighties – our idols have changed and with them, our notions of success.
“From an evolutionary perspective, this is called prestige bias,” says Johns. “Humans have an incredibly well-developed sense of hierarchy – and we’ve thrived for millennia by looking at the people in our communities who are considered ‘high status’ and copying their actions and decisions. Recently, though, these figures have changed.” Where once you had Sid Vicious, you now have YouTuber’s Alfie Deyes or Zoella as the people defining youth culture. “Plus, in our image-saturated world, where they might be photographed at any moment, those in the public eye are becoming increasingly careful about hiding their own hedonism. This seems like they’re living cleaner, healthier lives – but we don’t know the reality, though most of us have been copying their example regardless.”
5. Yoga happened. And keeps happening
So yoga itself is neither new nor particularly objectionable when taken in isolation. It’s more the fact that for years it has been a gateway drug, leading millions of us into the world of wellness. Once a non-word uttered solely in relation to alternative medicines has now infiltrated even the darkest corners of pop culture: from the feeds we follow to the food we eat and the neon juices we glug wincingly.
Of course, it’s quite nice that we’re all trying to feel good, eat clean and not die of chronic heart disease. But, as feminist writer Carol-Ann Farkas pointed out, wellness culture isn’t just a bit boring, it also represents “a radical turning inward of agency toward the goal of transformation of one’s own body, in contrast to a turning outward to mobilize for collective action.” We’re so busy engaging in some light body fascism – obsessing over how we look and feel – we forget there’s a big wide world out there.
Also, who wants to go out and do something wild the night before a 7am yoga class? We might be boring but we’re not masochists.
6. We’ve become morning people
Where once the concept of an early start was met with disdain, as Dr Gaye says, time is the new luxury and we’re willing to stretch our days to fit in not just yoga, but business and socialising. “40% of my business comes from breakfast,” explains Anna Hansen, founder of London eatery The Modern Pantry. “It’s much busier than lunch as people cram in business meetings or come in after an early workout at Barry’s Bootcamp, which is next door.”
Where once the 6am to 9am timeslot was reserved for feeling drowsy, we’re now loathe to waste these precious hours. Not surprising, really: researchers found that, far from streamlining our lives, things such as email, WhatsApp and social media have added an extra layer of stuff for us to attend to. Now we’re all putting our mornings to use: networking, raving (Morning Gloryville raves – loud music, neon lights, green juices – have become so popular that you can now attend one anywhere from London to Sydney) and drinking all the artisan coffee. In fact, the number of coffee shops has gone up 12% in the past 10 years.
7 Sex? What’s that?
Yes, even sex itself has become passé. According to research from the Archives of Sexual Behaviour, those born between the mid-Eighties and mid-Nineties are significantly less likely to have sex than older counterparts. In fact, the number of people in their mid-20s who reported having no sexual partners after the age of 18 was 15% (this figure had increased from the 6% it was just 30 years earlier). Last week, the ONS reported that pregnancies for those aged under 25 are at the lowest rate since 1969. An interesting turn of events you might think, given that sleeping with a stranger takes a mere flick of the thumb on Tinder – but perhaps not wholly unexpected. This is the generation who benefitted from sex education that focused solely on UNWANTED PREGNANCY and HORRIBLE STIS (always in capital letters.) No wonder we’re terrified, prudish even.
And, in fact, prudery has seeped out from the bedroom and infiltrated other parts of our lives – because as advertisers are finding, we’re now more seduced by activism and do-gooding than by sex. According to the journal Psychological Bulletin, clever marketing no longer plays up to our most carnal desires: if anything, researchers found that overt sexiness has a negative impact on our perceptions of a brand. Sex doesn’t sell any more, nipples are a banned substance and as anyone who’s been a bit too naughty on Twitter will know, people are very quick to take offence.
8. Property has become our porn
Owning a house: a financial drain and hard bloody work, yes. But also unobtainable for many in the current financial climate (in the Nineties, the average house cost about 3.2 times the average salary. Nowadays, the average house price is 12 times the average salary). Which means... we all want one! Yes, we live in a world where having a nice garden, a yappy dog and hand-painted kitchen tiles from Spain are as aspirational as rock superstardom. Somewhere along the way the most stable, middle-aged activity became sexy.
Property and interiors porn only serve to fan those flames of desire. Pinterest offers up carefully curated images of minimal Scandi-chic abodes and 547 ways to arrange photo frames on your walls, causing a kind of hysteria. Rightmove teases us nightly with houses we can’t afford. And the only thing better than having a house is having a stark, minimal house. Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up series has sold over 5 million copies on the premise of mindful decluttering. (Does that old sock spark joy? Yes, yes it does.) We have fetishised our homes, built entire social platforms around homewares and plants. Do we need to get out more? Very possibly.
How we used to party
Things weren’t always like this, you know? We ask four party-hard women to remind us about a wilder time
“Hundreds of people we didn’t know would turn up to our parties”
Music journalist Sylvia Patterson, 51, was in her 20s in the Nineties
The Nineties really were as chaotic and brilliant and life-affirming as legend says. Nights out were spent in the pubs of Camden, where lots of record labels were based. You were never more than two feet from a member of Blur. I’d wear a military coat and Stormtrooper boots; my mate would wear a full-on wedding dress. The first I heard of ecstasy was in 1990: all of a sudden you looked around and everybody was on it. I remember Damon Albarn talking about a ‘blizzard of cocaine’ at the time. Drugs had become so normal that they never felt illegal.
I lived with four other freelancers in west London. None of us had proper jobs, but we always had money to party. Hundreds of people we didn’t know would turn up to our parties and see people like Page 3 model Linda Lusardi traipsing up our stairs.
I partied hard until 1999, when I ended up in hospital after Reading Festival. I’d fallen off a curb, slicing my arm in two. The doctor told me the nerve damage was so bad my arm might have to be amputated. Luckily it wasn’t, but that’s when my partying ended. I don’t regret it though because we wanted chaos – we embraced being out of control.
I’m Not With The Band by Sylvia Patterson (£20, Sphere), out now
“It was just non-stop frenetic hysteria which all blurred into one”
Journalist Julie Burchill, 57, was in her 20s in the Eighties
Ah, the Eighties: so much money, so many drugs! Wherever I was, the party went with me. I’d take cocaine with my second husband (Cosmo Landesman), best friend (Toby Young, now a respectable journalist) and most of the impressionable youngsters who worked for my magazine, The Modern Review. Back then I was queen of the Groucho Club and would be there every school night snorting enough cocaine to stun the Colombian army. In my show-offy industry, you often needed it to survive a night with the people around you. People always ask about the best party I ever went to, but the truth is I don’t remember. It was just non-stop frenetic hysteria which all blurred into one.
At the time, I enjoyed it greatly. Looking back, I’m impressed at my stamina and feel pleased to still be alive and getting a total kick out of life. I found it fun at the time but I gave up drugs a couple of years ago, overnight, after doing it for 30 years full-on – I don’t believe in addiction.
Some ex-druggies become self-righteous misery-buckets, but I never will. I daresay young people have fun in their own way today – sexting looks a right laugh – but I have an inkling that we may have had a better time in the Eighties.
“All my best stories involve throwing up somewhere untoward”
Anita Bhagwandas, 33, was in her 20s in the early Noughties
In theory, I’m a millennial, but like many older millennials, we took our cues from the cooler Nineties kids and were all about the music. When I left home for uni, I got a job DJing in a rock club in Cardiff which led to years of decadence and bad behaviour – they eventually fired me a couple of years later for being ‘unreliable’ and, well, off my face on the classic Welsh wine/voddy combo.
I was part of the burgeoning alternative scene of ‘moshers’ who were routinely spat at or abused for looking different and loving Slipknot. The Noughties were all about individual subculture – Goth, mosher, trendie or townie. What defined me was music, and excess. All my best stories involve throwing up somewhere untoward (in a housemate’s deceased grandmother’s vase or on a mate after trying to ‘fire breathe’ with liquid paraffin – true story). I routinely ‘went on tour’ with bands, once returning the day before my finals.
It’s odd that people just a few years younger have a totally different view on hedonism. In some ways I admire them for not losing years to out-of-control partying like my generation did but I also yearn for all that uncomplicated fun I had and want that for them – even if they don’t want it themselves.
“What made the decade so hedonistic was the music”
DJ Annie Nightingale, 76, was in her 20s in the Sixties
In the Sixties, we felt like we could change the world. For the first time, young people had a voice and anything was possible. People like David Bailey – a photographer from the East End – and working-class model Twiggy proved you could be whatever you wanted regardless of your background. It was a time of psychedelic social revolution, The Beatles took over the world and movements like flower power and feminism became popular.
It felt hedonistic, but with a social purpose: make love, not war. And it was effective – it helped stop the Vietnam War. For me, though, what made the decade so hedonistic was the music. We’d go to amazing little clubs like AdLib or The Scotch of St James, where Paul McCartney would come up to you and say, “I saw you on TV tonight.” We’d drink whisky and coke and I’d wear a mini skirt with big white boots that caused such a stir on TV that viewers would write in about ‘my surgical footwear’. Although a lot of people were smoking weed, I never saw many drugs, but we drank a lot and danced all night to Motown. I would roll home on the 4am train to Brighton and remember thinking there was nowhere else I’d rather be.
Photography: Julie Burchill photographed by Jillian Edelstein