The lesser-spotted underage drinker in 2024

When did you last see underage drinkers even try to get served in a pub? It’s what you might call a dying tradition.

Ray’s dad says he started drinking in a pub on the Somerset Levels when he was 12, surrounded by adults who made sure he and his brothers (mostly) behaved themselves.

And in the mid-1990s, Jess went to East London pubs from 16 hiding behind her tall friend, though nobody ever got asked for ID.

She’d sit in the darkest corner of the back room with all the other juvenile boozers, tolerated by management on the understanding that they behaved. 

(Teenage Jess’s drinks of choice, in case you were wondering: snakebite and black, or Newcastle Brown Ale.)

It sounds sort of cute and nostalgic but there are good reasons why you might not want actual children to drink. Pubs have quite rightly been put under pressure to apply the law, check for ID, and refuse service if they’re in doubt.

Still, the other day, we saw what looked to us like a group of adolescents getting served in a pub without too much trouble.

We say “what looked to us like” because we’ve reached a point where people under, say, 25 all look about the same age to us. What we think is a schoolboy turns out to be a bloke on his way to the office or, worse, a teacher. That kind of thing.

Anyway, these lads definitely looked young, and the bar staff thought so too, because they asked for ID. One of them produced a document which, even from a distance, looked unconvincing. After a bit of conversation, the person behind the bar was convinced, or gave up, and agreed they could have their drinks.

They ordered, nervously, three pints of lager, without specifying which one.

As they made their way to a table they all but gave each other fist bumps. Their conspiratorial manner and excitement were obvious.

“Alright lads, play it cool, play it cool,” said Jess.

At which point, they took out their phones and started recording videos of themselves with their beers, pouting and posing for, we suppose, Tik-Tok or something similar.

The middle-aged group on the table next to them asked, amused, what they were up to. The phones went away and some polite, good-natured conversation ensued.

There’s no astonishing twist to this story. The lads drank their pints, slowly and a bit weirdly, as if they’d never held a glass before, or tasted beer. They made quiet conversation. And after a while, they left, with a round of shy waves and goodbyes to their neighbours and the pub staff.

Legally, they probably shouldn’t have been served – one ID, even if it is legit, doesn’t cover three people. But it was hard to find the whole business anything less than rather sweet.

And we need them to develop the pub habit, don’t we, if we want these places to exist at all in 20 years time?

Back in the 1990s and 00s there were conversations about lowering the legal age for drinking in pubs so that this could be a safe, supervised activity. It was tied into various moral panics over kids ‘hanging around’ on the streets, alcopops, and lager loutism.

Which politician would bother arguing for that now?

There are some additional thoughts on youthful drinking habits and the avocado toast paradox for subscribers to our Patreon.

13 replies on “The lesser-spotted underage drinker in 2024”

In Germany you are allowed to drink beer and wine from 16 years of age – and are also allowed in many pubs until 10pm or so (or midnight? Not 100% sure). (I’ve heard that in rural parts of bavaria the inofficial drinking age – meaning what the public thinks is ok – is still more like 13 or so, and on occasions like village festivals etc. this is also true for many other rural areas.)

I actually always found these rules to be kind of good, as I feel binge drinking is less the norm than in many other countries, as there’s always next weekend where you can legally drink your beers again.

My of-legal-drinking-age son just seems to have no interest in the pub, and is convinced he’ll be turned away if he tries to order a cider, despite my assurances that 1) no one would actually ask for proof of age in most of the pubs I’d recommend and 2) he actually has some ID that proves he’s over 18. But I think ‘seems’ is the operative word, since I’m reasonably sure he’s off drinking those terrible ciders with his uni friends at the student bar, which is probably as it should be…but not as nice, in my opinion, as relaxing in our next-door pub!

There’s a treason-doth-never-prosper problem here. On one hand, it would be a very unusual pub that didn’t ID drinkers who looked anywhere near the minimum age. On the other, some people do just have young-looking features – I did myself for many years. So there’s no way of knowing whether the young-looking drinker who gets ID’d and then gets served is under-age – unless their ID is obviously dodgy and/or there are other signs (conspiratorial giggles, holding the glass awkwardly, ordering ‘two pints of beer’ etc).

So if by ‘under-age drinkers’ you mean ‘under-age drinkers like you or I used to be’ – kids who go out every Friday to meet their mates, drink a couple of pints and put a shilling in the juke-box to hear the latest from Eddie Cochrane or Cliff Bennett – there may be just as many of them as there ever were (surveys suggest otherwise, but that’s another matter). The most you’re ever going to see are under-age drinkers who are out for the first time and haven’t got the means or the sense to equip themselves with a convincing fake ID – and they’re inevitably going to be much rarer.

In short, well spotted!

Learning how to behave in the pub when underage was a prime example of being socialised in a “controlled drinking environment” which people often wax lyrical about.

I’m convinced that the end of underage drinking and the often aggressive ID’ing of people even when they’re well over 18 is a significant and underappreciated factor in the decline of the pub trade. Even if you have nothing to hide, if you’re treated as a suspect you will be deterred.

When I was underage drinking (very late 90s), the pub still had better entertainment and the better chance of meeting someone.

The home has so much entertainment available now – the whole of historical music available, all kinds of live sport, computer games, chatting to any mate not just your three repetitive mates…Tinder and the sort.

I don’t think any teenager would be rushing there even if permitted. Those days are gone.

My youthful drinking is well documented. When you live in a boring town and have terrible parents what else can one do?

I don’t think I’d like my kids to drink under age in a pub, though. Unless I was with them but then I don’t want a pub to lose their licence. Tricky business!

Barstaff are under tremendous pressure to challenge anyone who looks under 21; my son was sacked from his pub job for failing to do so with one customer who turned out to be a nark from the council. As pubcurmudgeon says, it creates an unwelcoming atmosphere.

AP at my local, I was served by my brother.

And late 90s, it was still a different price between two sections. I was too young to understand it. But knew where to buy…

First beer in a Llandudno pub I was two weeks shy of 16, it was horrible but in the 6th form I used to go out most Fridays (two pints of Strongbow) – fast forward a long time and I’m in Regensberg with my 16 year old lad and I buy the first beer, next round I’m ’your shout now!’ ‘WHAAT!’ Comes the reply. As I write this I’ve just been served a Vienna by him in my Exeter local though he’s 25 now.

Like many people of my generation, I began my drinking under-age (at 15 in my case). Norwich in the early 1970s was seriously over-pubbed – the result of having four quite large regional breweries based there until a major shakeout between 1959 and 1964 which saw everything end up in the hands of Watneys. There were just over 300 pubs in the city when I started drinking (maybe a third of that number now), many of them little single-bar back-street places run by elderly widows. They would serve you if you behaved yourself, but step out of line and you were out on your ear – and banned from all their friends’ pubs too. It did teach you how to behave in a pub.

I can’t help thinking that the well-publicised issues about young people going out and getting absolutely legless as soon as they are able to drink legally is partly due to the campaigns against under-age drinking that have run almost incessantly over the past 20 years. Treat young people as irresponsible kids, and they will behave like them. Give them a chance to learn how to treat alcohol responsibly, and they might just do so.

I still think theyre out there, but I often think we miss seeing them because they dont choose the same kind of pubs as we do now, because we’re a much different age range, and separate generation and look for different things. The pubs I drank in back when I was possibly too young to be meant to be doing so, ignoring most of them dont really exist anymore, arent the kinds or styles of pubs Id visit anymore anyway. So is it me thats changed & not really them ?

Ive seen groups occasionally where Ive thought from the way they seemed completely confused by how to order at the bar, they probably were underage, but they werent id’d.

the one time Ive seen the id check like within the past year or so,was actually in a Wetherspoons, and it raised an interesting element about using the app to order alcoholic drinks, if you then cant provide id when theyre brought over. As one of the group had not got id, left at home apparently, and despite protesting alot and citing other times theyd been served there without question, only those with id got their drinks, the one who had not, their drink was taken back to the bar and they were not refunded for it.

I had fears about the demise of under age drinking so I asked a guy at work in his early 20s when he first went to the pub. “14” he replied. When I said I thought things were meant to be stricter now he said you had to know which pub, which to be honest isn’t different from where I were a lad.

There is a pub in Bristol we suspect might be the go-to for underage drinkers. We went once and felt *ancient*.

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