More Pets, Fewer Babies

Two aspects of contemporary South Korean society


More Pets, Fewer Babies: Two aspects of contemporary South Korean society
More Pets, Fewer Babies
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I. The rise of the pet industry

The number of pet-owning households is rapidly increasing in South Korea.

  • Households with pets: According to a 2017 study, 28.1% of South Korean households (approximately 5.93 million households) own at least one pet.
  • Pet popularity: Dogs account for 78.7% of the pet population, followed by cats at 22.7%, fish at 4%, hamsters at 2.2%, birds at 1.6%, and reptiles at 1.5%.
  • Future growth: About 30% of households without pets are seriously considering adopting a pet in the future. → The number of pet animals is expected to steadily increase.

Changes in the public perceptions of pets and the influx of social/familial problems are driving the fast growth of pet ownership.

  • In the past, pets were often kept as theft prevention, or for ornamental purposes. Recently, however, more people consider their pets to be not just animals, but members of their family.
  • Especially as family size and communication between family members decrease in our modern society, fewer people attain a sense of belonging and emotional stability from family. Pets, then, fill these voids, as confirmed by the three reported benefits of pet owners: decreased loneliness, emotional stability, and lowered stress.
  • This change in the perception of and interest in pets has led to the production of pet-related broadcasting and video contents such as There Are No Bad Dogs in the World and TV Animal Farm. The sudden popularity of such contents is encouraging the growth of related industries, thereby creating a virtuous circle.

Interestingly, pet cats are becoming much more popular than pet dogs.

  • The number of pet dogs increased 1.5 times from 4.4 million in 2012 to 6.67 million in 2017, but the number of pet cats doubled from 1.16 million to 2.23 million over the same period.
  • The biggest reason for this disparity concerns the increase in single-person households and in people who only want to raise one pet. Young people prefer cats over dogs because cats are less likely to get lonely and can be left alone, while dogs need their owners to spend a lot of time with them or raise more than one together (requiring spacious living quarters and double the expenses).
  • Cats also beat dogs in recent search volume and image count, perhaps evidencing this new trend in pet preference.

It is also interesting to observe the rapid growth of the pet industry exceeding the popularity of pets themselves.

  • Due to the changing perception of pets (that they are part of the family), pet products are expanding into assorted categories. For example, there used to be only a few items in the pet food section, but stores now offer a whole menu of products including supplements, milk, and snacks. Since pets have become family members, the pet food and beverage market is evolving similarly to its human counterpart. Moreover, there is a growing number of distribution channels selling pet products. Most large retail stores have a sizeable pet section, while pet stores and online retailers are also rising in popularity.
  • The pet care industry is also growing quickly. The supply is insufficient for the demand, as you may not be able to get your dog professionally groomed if you don’t make a reservation a week in advance. Animal hospitals are also expanding from treatment to prevention and maintenance.
  • As of 2017, pet owners spend an average of 120,000 won (~$112) a month on their pets, and the average expenses are increasing proportionally to the speed at which new products and services are being released.
  • In conclusion, the pet industry is rapidly growing at an annual rate of 30-50%, thanks to an increase in the number of pet-owning households, in the variety of pets, and in pet products and services.

II. The decline in fertility rate

In contrast to the rise in pet ownership, the fertility rate in South Korea is rapidly declining.

  • The total fertility rate (the average number of births per woman of childbearing age) in South Korea dropped to 1.05, its lowest ever, in 2017.
    • Past total fertility rates: 4.53 in 1970, 2.06 in 1983, 1.3 in 2000, 1.09 in 2005, and 1.05 in 2004.
  • This is the lowest among OECD countries and significantly lower than the OECD average of 1.68.
  • In December 2017, the number of deaths surpassed the number of births for the first time, marking a demographic shift. Experts say that social problems caused by the aging population will manifest 5-6 years from now.

Key reasons for the declining fertility rate are the changed perceptions of marriage/childbirth and the increased burdens of childcare.

  • In 2017, the number of marriages decreased 6.1% from the previous year to 265,000, the lowest in 43 years. The decline in the number of marriages has continued since 2012.
  • There are also more married couples who do not have biological children. Only 2% of married couples did not have a child in 1980-1984; this figure increased to 9% in 2005-2009 and 37.2% in 2010-2015. In other words, one out of three couples are now childless, as childless couples continue to be on the rise.
  • The high financial burden of childcare largely contributed to the changed perception of marriage and childbirth from “essential” to “non-essential.” The average cost of childcare is about 1.07 million won (about $1000), or one-third of all monthly expenses. Childcare costs have skyrocketed especially as premium childcare products and services continue to emerge and competition for early education intensifies, putting parents under immense pressure to provide for their children.
  • Ultimately, the philosophy that happiness comes from living alone or not having a child has taken off, simultaneously reflecting and contributing to the decline in marriage and childbirth.

The changing industries around childbirth and childcare mirror current social issues.

  • The field of obstetrics and gynecology (OB/GYN), the medical practice most closely related to the fertility rate, is sharply declining in South Korea. In the last three years, the number of OB/GYN specialists has decreased by about 4%—the only to do so among 13 healthcare fields—sharply contrasting with the 17.2% increase in neuropsychiatry and 13.8% in veterinary medicine. The conversion of OB/GYNs to geriatric hospitals best illustrates the nature of this population crisis.
  • The rapid growth of the childcare industry despite the falling fertility rate exposes the problem of rising childcare costs in Korea. This problem is due to the introduction of premium infant formula, English-language preschool, early education for “gifted” children, and early foreign language education; prices are so high that they even offset the losses from the decrease in childbirth. That is, the childcare market is no longer a typical market where prices drop as supply increases; it has become an abnormal market where the increase in premium product supply drives the demand to grow more competitive, only resulting in higher prices for consumers. However, most experts say that the market for children’s products, relying on the high cost of childcare, will eventually boomerang and hit a slump.

III. Implications

The changing trends in pet ownership and childbirth clearly reflect certain aspects of contemporary South Korean society. There are now more people who think, “I want to live sufficiently on my own without the financial burdens of marriage and childcare” and/or “I’m going to live happily by having an emotional connection with my pet, whom I accept as a family member.”

However, the new influx of pet animals is not without problem, and the government has been slow to introduce pet-related policies.

  • There has been an increase in pet-related issues on both the pet and human sides: animal abuse and abandonment, and compensation for humans injured by pet animals in public. Additionally, abandoned pets often grow violent and become the targets of human hatred, deepening social conflicts over animals and keeping them as pets.

Simultaneously, policies are not keeping up with the decline in marriage and childbirth, despite the serious side effects expected in the future.

How will South Korean trends in pet ownership and marriage/childbirth change in the future? Will there be more cats than dogs? Will there be more adopted pets than newborn babies? With all that said, is it right to compare these two population trends?

Talk to your Ringle tutor, learn about the cultural differences between American and Korean perceptions of pets and marriage/childbirth, and also receive feedback on your English usage.

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