From the kitchen to the laundry room to the home entertainment center, Americans are paring down the list of familiar household appliances they say they can't live without, according to a new national survey by the Pew Research Center's Social & Demographic Trends project.
No longer do substantial majorities of the public say a microwave oven, a television set or even home air conditioning is a necessity. Instead, nearly half or more now see each of these items as a luxury. Similarly, the proportion that considers a dishwasher or a clothes dryer to be essential has dropped sharply since 2006.
These recession-era reevaluations are all the more striking because the public's luxury-versus-necessity perceptual boundaries had been moving in the other direction for the previous decade. For example, the share of adults who consider a microwave a necessity was just 32% in 1996. By 2006, it had shot up to 68%. Now it has retreated to 47%. Similarly, just 52% of the public in the latest poll say a television set is a necessity—down 12 percentage points from 2006 and the smallest share to call a TV a necessity since this question was first asked more than 35 years ago.
Along with a new creed of thrift, there's another factor—technology adoption—that appears to be shaping public judgments about some of these items. Take cell phones. A relative newcomer in the everyday lives of most Americans, the cell phone is among a handful of newer gadgets that have held their own on the necessity scale from 2006 to 2009. Moreover, it may have contributed to a drop in necessity ratings for the older-era appliance it has partially supplanted. The survey finds that people who consider a cell phone a necessity—some 49% of the public, including a disproportionate share of young adults—are less inclined than others to feel the same way about a landline phone.
In addition to exploring these shifts in consumer perceptions, the Pew Research survey asked respondents about a range of belt-tightening strategies and behaviors triggered by the recession, which officially began in December 2007.
Read the full report Luxury or Necessity? The Public Makes a U-Turn on the Pew Research Center's Social & Demographic Trends Web site.