Presto, Change-O: One Man’s Luxury Turns Into The Same Man’s Necessity

Economists have long puzzled over the fact that societies don’t seem to get happier as they get richer, beyond a level of comfortable subsistence. One theory is that we’re on a “hedonic treadmill,” quickly adapting to any new good thing in our lives and then taking it for granted. The theory gains indirect support from a Pew Research Center study on whether Americans regard certain things as luxuries or necessities.

You’ll get no points for guessing that the list of “things we can’t live without” has grown as people shift items from the luxury column into the ranks of necessities. Air conditioning is a good example. Seventy percent of respondents rated home air conditioning a necessity, up from 26 percent in a 1973 poll (and from 51 percent as recently as 1996). Car air conditioning is a necessity for 59 percent, vs. 13 percent in 1973 and 41 percent in 1996. Some things that were novelties a generation ago are now necessities for many. That’s true of home computers (51 percent), cell phones (49 percent), cable/satellite TV service (33 percent) and high-speed Internet access (29 percent). Of course, some items have been necessities for decades. Ninety-one percent of respondents see a car as a necessity, virtually matching the 90 percent who said so in 1973. The same goes for a washing machine (88 percent in 1973, 90 percent now). One surprise: People were more likely to see a clothes dryer than a TV set as a necessity (83 percent vs. 64 percent). Perhaps some are content merely to watch their clothes tumble about.

People who grew up with modern conveniences aren’t necessarily more apt to regard them as necessities. Those age 18-29 are less likely than those 65-plus to view home air conditioning as a necessity (67 percent vs. 77 percent). The same goes for the dishwasher (30 percent vs. 44 percent), clothes dryer (75 percent vs. 87 percent), car air conditioning (52 percent vs. 71 percent) and TV set (53 percent vs. 73 percent). This pattern is reversed, though, when it comes to some high technology. For instance, 55 percent of the 18-29s said the home computer is a necessity, vs. 25 percent of the 65-and-overs.

Do our notions of necessity expand to fit our ability to afford things? Partly. A dishwasher was more likely to be seen as a necessity by those with household income of $100,000-plus than by those making less than $30,000 (54 percent vs. 27 percent). But 72 percent of each group deemed the microwave oven a necessity. Similarly, the survey’s low earners were nearly as likely as the high earners to say they view home air conditioning as a necessity (71 percent vs. 73 percent).