5% said they neeeeded their flat-screen TV.
Luxury or Necessity? Things We Can’t Live Without–The List Has Grown in the Past Decade
December 14, 2006
The Pew Charitable Trusts
As Americans navigate increasingly crowded lives, the number of things they say they can’t live without has multiplied in the past decade, according to a new Pew Research Center survey that asks whether a broad array of everyday consumer products are luxuries or necessities.
Some of these goods, such as home computers, are relatively recent information era innovations that have been rapidly transformed in the public’s eyes from luxury toward necessity.
But other items – such as microwave ovens, dishwashers, air conditioning for the home and car, and clothes dryers – have also made substantial leaps in the past decade even though they’ve been fixtures on the consumer landscape for far longer.
For example, the percentage of American adults who describe microwave ovens as a necessity rather than a luxury has more than doubled in the past decade, to 68%. Home air conditioning is now considered a necessity by seven-in-ten adults, up from half (51%) in 1996. And more than eight-in-ten (83%) now think of a clothes dryer as a necessity, up from six-in-ten (62%) who said the same a decade ago in a survey conducted by the Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University.
The Pew survey asked the “Luxury or Necessity?” question about 14 different consumer products designed to help make everyday life more productive, more convenient, more comfortable, more efficient or more entertaining. It was conducted by telephone from October 18 through November 9, 2006 among a randomly-selected nationally-representative sample of 2,000 adults.
Survey respondents placed the 14 items on a very broad range along the “necessity” scale — with a high of 91% describing a car as a necessity and a low of 3% saying the same about an iPod.
But one pattern was consistent: wherever there has been a significant change in the past decade in the public’s judgment about these items, it’s always been in the direction of necessity. And on those items for which there are longer term survey trends dating back to 1973, this march toward necessity has tended to accelerate in the past ten years.
The two most ubiquitous products of the information era – home computers and cell phones – are currently situated in the middle of the pack, with the public evenly divided about their status. Computers are deemed a necessity by 51% of the adult public, and cell phones by 49%.
But both of these products are making a swift climb up the necessity scale. A decade ago, just 26% of adults considered the home computer a necessity, and back in 1983, when computers were still a novelty, just 4% felt that way. Meantime, cell phones were still so exotic in 1996 that they weren’t even placed on the survey. The same holds for high-speed internet access; it didn’t exist as a consumer service in 1996, but it’s now considered a necessity by 29% of the adult public.
The old adage proclaims that “necessity is the mother of invention.” These findings serve as a reminder that the opposite is also true: invention is the mother of necessity. Throughout human history, from the wheel to the computer, previously unimaginable inventions have created their own demand, and eventually their own need. But you don’t have to take our word for it — just ask the American public.
View the full report on the Pew Research Center’s Web site.”