Jeff Corbett on the way alcohol has become essential in almost all we do.

By , 25/04/2020 19:36

WHEN did alcohol become such a prominent part of our society? It hasn’t happened in just a decade but it does seem to me that suddenly alcohol is pervasive, that it has been granted an essential role in everything we do.

Yes, I know that briefly in ‘s white history rum was currency, and that n working class men have long had an international reputation as boozers, and that the Hunter’s towns, and Newcastle’s Hunter Street, were infested with many more pubs than they have now.

And the incidence of daytime public drunkenness does seem to have declined. When I was a boy I’d see men staggering out of the pubs at all times of the day, barely able to walk, and if the wearing of a Fedora hat was the measure they were well dressed, and it’s been years since I’ve seen anyone emerge from a pub in such a state, day or night. Perhaps I need to stay out later.

But it does seem now that alcohol is in our face every day, that in many ways it is more important to us than food, and if that is a new pervasiveness as I say then it has arrived with my generation, the baby boomers, and our children. Booze now has such an essential role in a good time, in every celebration, in our national days that it seems the reason for the celebration is lost in a celebration of booze.

Suddenly, too, beer has become posh, the new fancy brews allowing beer guzzlers to join wine sippers in raising the glass with the little finger aloft. Craft beer has converted swilling to arty appreciation.

Of course it is individuals who create the bigger picture, and I’m one of them and a good example at that. As a teenager I drank to be grown up and a short time later I drank because drinking was the platform for my friendships, and sadly not all my friends were spared the chemical dependency we call alcoholism.

A few years later as a journalist I was encouraged to drink with people who were sources of news tips, and for much of my career my drinking costs were paid with or without receipts. I didn’t need too much encouragement, because many of these people were already mates or became mates, and so I was very happy to be drinking what was effectively free beer. This work-based drinking culture probably helped shorten the life of a few of my older colleagues.

Drinking in the name of work was called entertaining and it was common among white-collar workers, at least until Paul Keating abolished entertainment as a tax deduction late last century.

Somewhere along the line alcohol became integrated into our life, as much an ordinary part of it as morning coffee, and I think it changed us. For many there is no such thing as a good time without alcohol, and those get-togethers that don’t have booze are to be avoided or endured.

There has come about, too, a difference between people who drink and people who don’t, more marked in men than women. When my wife only rarely drank she would tell me that often she felt excluded at women’s social events because she didn’t drink, and the difference is that a man who didn’t drink would be unlikely to be invited to the male equivalent.

In 2006 US economists Dr Bethany Peters and Professor Edward Stringham released a study into the effect of drinking alcohol on a person’s income in which they noted that non-drinkers were usually not at social occasions that involved drinking and this had an impact on their career opportunities. The economists said it was not clear whether the abstainers chose not to go or whether the drinkers excluded them, and in my experience it is both. I cringe when I arrive late at a boozy table, which is how the abstainer must feel for the duration, and boozers cringe at the prospect of a sober witness.

Dr Peters and Professor Stringham found that drinking men earned 21 per cent more than teetotal men and drinking women earned 23 per cent more than teetotal women, and that this was because drinkers had developed better social and people skills and more friends and acquaintances. I’d guess that had I been a teetotal journalist I’d have earned well south of 21 per cent less. Yes, there was one once, I think.

This study backs my belief that drinking alcohol has shaped society well beyond the influence of youth and hard-drinking working class men. It backs my belief also that there is a detectable difference between men who drink and men who don’t, but that’s incidental. (Maybe men who drink would have more social skills and more friends even if they didn’t drink.)

For a long time I believed marijuana would come to challenge alcohol as the legal, or decriminalised, drug of choice, but it seems to me its popularity has faded over the past decade, possibly because of party pills. But nothing has slowed the rise and rise of booze.

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