Pets vs. kids

The definition of life is, surprisingly, not a settled issue. But one commonly-agreed to component is the fact that living things reproduce.

In humans, there is a strong natural instinct and drive to have children. It’s one of the main reasons – perhaps even the primary reason – that societies around the world have set up a culture based on marriage (and usually monogamy). At a biological level, “baby fever” is a real thing, not only for women but also for men.

As strong as this natural desire is, we can and do push against it. We’re not salmon, hard-wired to swim upstream to an ancestral nesting area; we can generally decide whether, where, when, and with whom to have kids.

And in America, we’re more and more frequently deciding not to procreate at all. While we are one of the most affluent countries in the world, our fertility rate of 1.87 births/woman is below both the world average (2.42) and the estimated replacement rate (2.1).

There are undoubtedly lots of reasons for that, ranging from changes in cultural standards to the ever-increasing cost of living and, in particular, cost of raising a child. And let’s not forget the economic dampeners of declining social mobility and record economic inequality.

But what’s clear is that biological mandate to have kids hasn’t left us, as evidenced by the growth in pet ownership among child-bearing-age Millennials.

Pets act as an economic substitute for children: They fill a similar need (shared love, and the feeling of taking care of a smaller being) but at a much lower level of cost and commitment. And the research says that more and more young people are opting for the path of least commitment:

As The Washington Post notes:

Three-fourths of Americans in their 30s have dogs, while 51 percent have cats, according to a survey released by research firm Mintel. That compares to 50 percent of the overall population with dogs, and 35 percent with cats.

The findings come at a time when millennials, roughly defined as the generation born between 1980 and 2000, are half as likely to be married or living with a partner than they were 50 years ago. They are also delaying parenthood and demanding flexible work arrangements — all of which, researchers say, has translated to higher rates of pet ownership.

And it’s not just about the companionship: We’re humanizing and indulging our pets just like we would otherwise do with our children:

A majority of millennials — 76 percent — said they are more likely to “splurge” on their pets than for themselves, including for expensive treats (44 percent) or a custom bed (38 percent), according to a 2014 study by Wakefield Research. By comparison, 50 percent of Baby Boomers — those born between 1946 and 1964 –– said they would do so.

Millennials were also twice as likely than Baby Boomers to buy clothing for their pets, a phenomenon Richter chalks up to the prevalence of social media.

While these numbers are for the US, the phenomenon of lower birth rates – of young people choosing not to have children (and often choosing not to marry) is widespread among more affluent countries, most or all of which are seeing stagnant or declining standards of living. I wouldn’t be surprised to see pet ownership skyrocketing in countries like Japan, which has one of the lowest rates of fertility in the world, at 1.41.

But while they may fill some personal needs, of course those pets aren’t children. And while this trend may be completely justified on an individual level, it spells disaster for a country that plans on a growing younger generation to accommodate the needs of its elders.


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