Polarized Pets…and Stressed-Out Kids

Inequality isn’t just bad for people.  It also affects our companion animals.   In the modern American economy, some workers have become money-rich and time-poor.  Others, who lost jobs or were downsized during the recent recession, became time richer but money poor.  And many Americans, forced to work multiple jobs to make ends meet are poor in both time and money.  In each case, pets are affected. 

In the first case, the result isn’t necessarily a bad one: the money-rich and time-poor can afford to see that their animals are well-treated.  When they don’t have time to walk the dog or feed the cat, an often-well-paid surrogate does it for them.

In Forbes magazine, Carol Tice reports that, “Annual pet-related expenditures soared from $43.2 billion in 2008 to nearly $53 billion this year,” while American median incomes were falling.  Pet care is big business, with more than 35 major chains providing services.  

An interesting twist: as Americans work more and take fewer vacations, traditional hotel chains are feeling the pinch from less business, while pet hotel chains are booming.  According to Tice,

Dog-spa chain Dogtopia [!—my exclamation] has more than 25 locations…while the luxury-focused D Pet Hotels has three hotels in Hollywood, Scottsdale and Manhattan.  Newcomer K-9 Resorts has hotels under construction that should give it seven locations by the end of the year…Outsourcing of picking up after our pets is also popular, judging by the proliferation of pooper-scooper chains [!—me again] including Pet Butler and the frankly named Wholly Crap…

Other chains deliver gourmet food for pets (while hunger among children is on the rise).

Clearly, taking care of the pets of the big winners in our financially-lopsided economy is good business and a growth industry for ambitious entrepreneurs.  On the other hand, thousands of Americans who lost jobs and income have been forced to abandon their pets, allowing them to become feral animals or to be picked up and euthanized.  And finally, many Americans, working long hours and earning little, have been driven by necessity either to give up their animals or leave them in a state of neglect for long periods.

What is harder to estimate is the impact on pets of super stressed-out workers who put in long hours at work and have little leisure time.  Clearly, animals pick up emotional clues from their masters.  But the problem is even more acute for America’s children.

Data from UNICEF and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) paint a dismal picture of the quality of life for America’s children.  I attended OECD’s 2015 How’s Life Conference in Guadalajara, Mexico, last month, and returned with the organization’s annual report on measuring wellbeing in the world’s 30-plus richest countries, which are all OECD members.  The report contains data comparing the wellbeing of children in an amazing array of areas ranging from child poverty rates to the percentage of teenagers who smoke or drink to incidents of bullying in schools and time parents spend with their kids.

OECD data shows that Americans work longer hours than their counterparts in almost all other OECD nations and their children fare far below the average in most wellbeing categories.  The “bird’s eye view of child wellbeing” ranks U.S. children a shocking close-to-last place, with only Poland and Turkey faring worse.  I suspected that long working hours might mean American parents spend less time with their kids, accounting for many of the negatives.  But I was wrong: the data shows we spend more time with our kids than all but four other countries. 

Overworked Americans don’t sacrifice time for their kids.  They give up time with friends, with spouses or partners, or alone, in leisure activities.  These sacrifices leave them highly-stressed and rub off on their children.  And much of the time Americans spend with kids is about preparing them for competition and includes chauffeuring them to an endless string of activities, to give them a leg up in college admissions and so forth.  Both children and parents are stressed by such activities.

American children rank second-to-last among OECD countries in “finding it easy to talk with parents” and rank very poorly in many other similar categories such as “feeling stress from schoolwork” or “finding classmates kind and helpful.”  They rank worst among OECD countries in obesity (itself as much a response to stress as to diet or exercise) rates and in “reporting poor health.” 

By contrast, in the Netherlands, the top-performing country for children and the nation with the world’s shortest working hours for adults, children are engaged in only about a third as many extra-curricular activities as American children, feel little stress in school (while performing better), are the least obese and report the highest life satisfaction.  Yet their parents actually spend less time with them than American parents do, giving more of their ample free time to socializing with friends or other leisurely pursuits.

Inequality in the United States and the fierce competition it engenders produce stress for both people (rich and poor) and their pets.  It’s something to think about.


John de Graaf

John de Graaf is an author, award-winning documentary filmmaker and president of Take Back Your Time, an organization fighting overwork and time poverty in America.

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