Young people might not go to pubs but they certainly go to Wetherspoon’s.
A discussion about this broke out in comments a few months ago. Our position then, as now, is that people shouldn’t be too pessimistic: the pub is too ingrained in our culture to be abandoned overnight, and people are often drawn to it as they get a little older. But we have been observing with this question in mind and it’s true: ‘proper pubs’ (smaller, characterful, brown, bordering on grubby) do tend to be dominated by people in their forties or older.
(Research for our forthcoming book suggests that it has always been that way, really, despite repeated efforts by brewers to make pubs appeal to younger drinkers who they feared losing to the cinema, coffee bars, burger restaurants, discos…)
The reasons for that seem obvious to us. It’s partly a matter of atmosphere but more importantly, we’re certain, one of cost, with pints of even quite ordinary lager or ale costing between £3.50-£5. People on minimum wage part-time jobs, living off student budgets, or even pocket money, can’t afford to spend £15 before they even start to feel mildly merry. A few weeks ago a young couple (perhaps 19 or 20-years-old) sat next to us in the Farmer’s Arms and made a half of bitter each last an hour while they listened to the band, rolled their own cigarettes, and counted coppers for their bus fare home. It didn’t look all that much fun.
But there is one kind of pub where we’ve noticed the clientele skew consistently youthful and that’s the Wetherspoon’s chain. It’s odd, that, in some ways, because it doesn’t necessarily match the stereotype of a ‘Spoons drinker, and there are certainly plenty of older people there, too. But from what we’ve seen, and dredging our own 20-year-old memories, it does make sense.
‘Spoons is an easy place not to drink, for one thing. The younger drinkers we’ve noticed are often on hot chocolate, frothy coffee or pounding cans of energy drink. A typical party, sat near us about a fortnight ago, between them had one pint of bitter, two of lager, a can of Monster, and a pint of Coke. They were all eating, too, treating it almost like a diner.
Which is another point in its favour. The menu is large, varied, and makes eating out, at a table with cutlery, accessible in towns like Penzance where otherwise it’s a tourist-price ‘bistro’ or Domino’s pizza with not much between. We’ve quite often seen groups of what must be sixth-form students having their tea together, perhaps prior to the cinema or some other activity.
It has room for the packs in which young people like to roam, too. Groups of six, eight, ten, with piles of rugby kit, or guitars, or costumes for a party, rarely struggle to find three tables to line up in banqueting formation.
And, being huge, it is relatively anonymous. They can shout, squeak, flirt and generally mess about without actually being the centre of attention, which they certainly would be in most other pubs in town. When Boak used to drink in the Walnut Tree in Leytonstone in the mid-1990s this was the main reason — because it felt safe and mixed, because she and her friends could sit in a corner and not be bothered.
If you’re a young parent, south of 25, ‘Spoons also seems to work. It is big enough and sufficiently noisy that your kid’s shouting and crying barely registers, and there’s plenty of room for push-chairs, colouring books and all the other accoutrements.
The question is, does all this breed new pub-goers, or only new ‘Spoons-goers? And that’s part of a bigger question about whether Wetherspoon pubs are really pubs, or only some strange, pub-like fast food outlet. It must be heartening, surely, that young people are out at all. If it was purely about cost, they’d be at home or in the park drinking supermarket beer which is cheaper again but, no, there’s an irresistible pull towards a shared public space.