Necessity or Luxury?

The usual pattern in life: Things once seen as luxuries come to be viewed as necessities. This sequence has been disrupted by the recession, though. Pew Research Center polling finds significant declines since 2006 in the number of people who see some household items as necessities.

The proportion of respondents regarding a car as a necessity has barely changed, from 91 percent in 2006 to 88 percent in the new polling (fielded last month). But there were steep drops for the TV set (from 64 percent to 52 percent), clothes dryer (from 83 percent to 66 percent) and dishwasher (from 35 percent to 21 percent). Cable/satellite TV service also had a sharp decline in its “necessity” tally (from 33 percent to 23 percent). On the other hand, the numbers held up well for the home computer (51 percent then, 50 percent now) and high-speed Internet access (29 percent then, 31 percent now). Once people adopt the idea that these are necessities, they may not easily abandon it.

A few newer technologies have a ways to go before joining the ranks of necessities. Eight percent said a flat-screen or high-definition TV is a necessity; 4 percent said an iPod is. Among older technologies, the microwave oven had the steepest fall in its “necessity” tally. In 2006, 68 percent rated it a necessity; in the new poll, 47 percent did so — a figure that won’t warm (or even reheat) the hearts of marketers in the microwavable-foods sector.

The necessity-or-luxury status of an item can vary with the respondent’s age. Cell phones are a conspicuous example of that phenomenon. Overall, 49 percent of respondents said they consider these a necessity (same as in the 2006 poll). Among the 18-29-year-olds, 60 percent voiced that opinion. The figure fell to 50 percent among the 30-49-year-olds, to 46 percent among the 50-64s and to 38 percent among those 65-plus. The pattern was reversed for landline phones.