At an average Millennial get-together, it’s not at all out of the norm for a friend to show off a hundred photos of their little one. They’ve gone all out in their excitement, buying everything from personalized bedding to custom decor – and you can bet there’s a monogram in the mix. From the amount of care Millennials exert making their pets comfortable and stylish like this, it’s easy to see that they have adopted their little furballs as true members of the family.
Young Americans may be less likely to be homeowners or parents of human children, but they are leading in their rate of pet ownership. The $69 billion pet industry has already grown three times larger than its size in 1996, and Millennials are fueling the increase. With 44 percent of Millennials remaining unsure if they want to start their own family, it makes sense that their Instagram feeds may be more full of fur babies than tiny humans. After all, aren’t pets the original starter children?
Although pets are undoubtedly cute, their vast popularity signifies a deeper reason for why Millennials are choosing to have pets over children.
Part of the explosion in pet popularity involves something not so warm and fluffy: personal finances. The Great Recession hit Millennials right as they graduated and entered the workforce, causing them a lifetime of financial anxieties and student loan debt. Looking at the numbers for owning a furry friend is no walk in the park, though, with the costs for a year of dog ownership ranging from $2,674 to $3,536. Seems excessive, right? Perhaps, but not when you compare it to the cost of raising a baby. Raising a child costs parents anywhere from $12,800 to $14,970 per year. And that’s without mentioning that college bill looming on the distant horizon. For cash-strapped couples, a dog or cat is simply a more financially feasible option.
Aside from finances, individuals are also drawn to the freedom a pet can offer. Pets can provide purpose without the sacrifices required for raising a baby. Of course, pets still require work and frequent bathroom breaks, but they can be left at home while owners go to work and out to social gatherings. While a pet can be left with minimal supervision, the same cannot be said for a child. This desire for freedom paints a bigger and more troubling picture – Millennial women feel like they can’t have kids.
Surprisingly, Millennials want more traditional gender roles for parents than the previous generation of Gen X, which puts women in a hard place. The average age women are having their first child has reached a new high of 26 years old, no doubt partially due to the ever-increasing motherhood penalty. This “penalty” is what sometimes happens to women when their career opportunities are limited post-baby. While mothers have always struggled to balance their home life with a career, divisions seem to have intensified in recent years as work-life integration has replaced work-life balance. Stephanie Coontz, co-chair and Director of Research and Public Education for the Council on Contemporary Families, remarked that the Millennial choice to have kids later has been exacerbated by the inability of women to choose both kids and a career. Employees are often expected to work long hours and be constantly available to their employers – things that are hard to do with a baby waiting at home.
With all of this change, are less binkies actually helping Millennial women get ahead? The answer is yes, with women who delay pregnancy tending to make about $16,000 more for each year they wait to have kids. However, while choosing to have a pet over a baby may help family finances now, it can cost the overall economy later as people spend less money on the traditional family provisions. Another factor to watch as the age for parenthood creeps higher is the potential risk of entering a replacement rate of births, which happens when a country isn’t having enough children to replace their current population number. The real issue for a low birth rate happens many years down the road, when fewer working age people have to support a larger aging population.
Is the United States in danger of having too few children to the detriment of the entire economy? Not yet, as growth rates are still relatively normal on a global scale. Rather, the important takeaway for brands and businesses is to be aware of is that the boom of fur babies is partially due to generational worries about finances and freedoms. Many are afraid that they can’t afford the time and money that kids require. This understanding can help businesses extend a helping hand to Millennials that reach them in a supportive, authentic way.
Brands that recognize Millennial worries can help them feel less trapped. Promoting an atmosphere of encouragement (regardless of life decisions) will increase brand loyalty as Millennials see supportive brands as allies. Employers should also consider increasing childcare and parental leave options to attract and retain their workers. Parents that work at companies who offer on-site childcare feel higher levels of positivity and loyalty to the business, increasing productivity for the entire company.
When parenthood is accepted, companies can retain high-achieving female employees and important diversity in workplace demographics. Parenthood will come later for Millennials, but for now, soak up the benefits of getting to pet all of those fur babies. Luckily, lint rollers can solve most pet parenting problems.