Not too long ago, a business trip took me to the Southern California neighborhood in which I had spent several of the most enjoyable years of my free-range childhood. There was the park where I had cheered on my friends at their Little League games. When I lived there, it had boasted a brand-new playground with all sorts of dangerous equipment.
The park looks very different now. Two acres, including the now-gone playground, have become a fenced-off dog park. The ball fields are now a large open space with no boundaries or bleachers for childhood sports. The elementary school next to the park, from which I graduated the sixth grade, is being used by the local school district for other things.
Located in the heart of middle-class suburbia and surrounded by three- and four-bedroom homes, this location cannot draw enough children to fill a school, or even play in the park.
This situation is not unique to my old slice of Southern California. Here where my family and I now live, in St. Louis, the Catholic archdiocese recently announced that it would close one of its high schools and two of its parish elementary schools, due to a precipitous decline in enrollment. It’s not just a matter of migration from the city to the suburbs, or from the suburbs to the exurbs. It is a matter of families—even Mass-attending Catholic families—having fewer children. When I was a child, the ideal family size was four children. Now, it’s two. In 1976, 36 percent of women had given birth to four or more children; by 2014, that number had dropped to 12 percent.
Meanwhile, construction of senior housing is booming and the industry is having no problem drawing investors. It needs them, because there are fewer family members to care for an aging population. A recent AARP report explains this. In 2010, the “caregiver support ratio” was more than seven potential family caregivers for every person aged eighty or more. By 2030, the ratio is projected to decline to four-to-one; and it is expected to fall to less than three-to-one in 2050, when all boomers will be in the high-risk years of late life.
Concurrent with this—and as more adults are saying that the expense of raising a child is what prevents them from having more children—there’s been a significant rise in expenditures on pets. While pets can play an important role as companions for the lonely or guardians for the home, our relationship to them has shifted greatly in the past few decades.
Note this phrasing from Bob Vetere, president of the American Pet Product Association, in an article earlier this year looking at industry trends: “The pet humanization trend is alive and well and continues to drive growth at the premium end of the market. As millennials prepare to take the reins from the baby boomer generation as the primary demographic of pet owners, they stand to further develop this trend.”
Thanks to this “pet humanization,” as the industry calls it, overall pet industry spending in 2015 topped $60 billion, about triple what it was in 1995 and 40 percent higher than in 2005. This is not because the overall numbers of dogs and cats have increased that much—they haven’t—but because people are coddling their pets more.
An article at the Purina website discusses this trend among millennials, and the way in which pets are “redefining family,” “spurring millennials on to new achievements,” and inspiring them “to explore the world and share their experiences with others.”
Pet owners today are more sensitive to the life experiences of their animals. Millennials cater more than other groups to their pets’ comfort, and spend more money on non-essential pet items. They own more pet clothing and toys and prefer enclosures like crates and kennels that allow for exercise. … “[Our cats] sleep in our beds and we spend a lot of money buying them toys we think they’ll like,” says Christina Ha, co-founder of Meow Parlour, New York City’s first cat café.
Dogs and cats are great. They can scare away burglars and mice. They can appear to give you unconditional love—more so, perhaps, than some children. But they cannot take the place of family.
I was reminded of all this while recently re-reading P. D. James’s The Children of Men, a novel with a perfectly deeply developed “what if” scenario: What would happen if people mysteriously stopped being able to have children? The book is set in 2021, about twenty-five years after the last human was born, and the human race is slowly giving up on its future. James writes:
In our universal bereavement, like grieving parents, we have put away all painful reminders of our loss. The children’s playgrounds in our parks have been dismantled. … Now they have finally gone and the asphalt playgrounds have been grassed over or sown with flowers like small mass graves. The schools, long closed, have been boarded up or used as centers for adult education.
A brief encounter strikes a nerve. The protagonist, a history scholar in Oxford, is leaving an out-of-the-way chapel while an elderly priest leads a christening party forward. As it turns out, two women are trying to have their kittens baptized: “The two kittens, ears flattened beneath the ribboned bonnets, looked both ridiculous and endearing. Their eyes were wide open, uncomprehending opal pools, and they seemed worried at their confinement.” One can only hope it was not going to be a baptism by immersion for the poor things.
The best dystopian literature takes the status quo and gives it a little twist, or a little ratchet up, and provides a world that is internally consistent with this twist. I think of the line from Hamlet, used as a title for a 1959 novel by Philip K. Dick: “The time is out of joint.” It’s a great metaphor for dystopia, as well as for Shakespearian tragedy—or even perhaps for the time we live in now.
The more we expand and generalize the words we apply to specifically human relationships—speaking of “pet parents,” or referring to our pets as our children or family members—the more we distort the ideas that undergird these terms, and the more we profane the real relationships those terms are supposed to cover.
In the end, it’s family and friends—human, caring people—who will make sure we are respected and loved in old age, not Fido and Fluffy. Unless these trends reverse quickly, we will find our future even closer to the dystopian nightmare of James’s novel.
K. E. Colombini is a former journalist who works in corporate communications.