Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.
– T.S.Eliot, The Waste Land
You may have seen articles about harmful levels of drinking in those over 50, who are otherwise well off and living ‘healthy’ lifestyles. These are well educated people, who may be harming themselves with their alcohol intake. Why might that be?
We all have personal responsibility for how much we drink and how we live our lives. However, here is what appears to be a social phenomenon where one sector of our society appears particularly vulnerable. Why the baby boomers? Why the middle classes?
First, I am curious about the reason that this is a surprise to people. I suppose the assumption goes that education leads to good choices. Somehow this has failed here, despite all the information and advice available on how much to drink and how to be healthy.
I’m going to suggest that for reasons that are largely unconscious, this group drink to deal with the stress that goes with many middle class lifestyles. It becomes a habitual way to deal with stress, and habits can be very hard to break.
So what is so stressful about being middle class, after all it brings many good things? Stand on London Bridge in the morning and watch the commuters flow over, lonely and worried, driven to get to work and achieve. What drives them to this? Perhaps it is the myth of achievement and growth. I think that is what drove me.
Modern Western culture can be manic, as success and happiness is often defined as having a good job and a certain income level. This comes with competition, career goals, and a life structured to achieve and grow. This can be stressful, and the acceptable way to deal with stress is often a glass (or more) of wine.
You hit 50 plus, and suddenly life is not about growth any more. The kids have left home. You need spectacles. Your career may be comfortable, but you can see the end. You can no longer deny you are in mental and physical decline. You finally see you are going to die. To avoid that truth it is often necessary to numb yourself. You take a drink.
Zombie movies are a recent cultural phenomenon, which may represent the realisation that we are numbing ourselves. To be part of the crowd going over London Bridge you may need to give up part of your consciousness, become a little numb, otherwise it might be overwhelming. Zombie films pick up on this and create images of the struggle of the individual against zombie culture.
So my take on middle class drinking is that it goes with a lifestyle that requires an anaesthetic that becomes habitual. The alternative is consciousness, and increasing your awareness and ability to bear the stress. Or a different lifestyle.