Luxury or Necessity? The Public Makes a U-Turn

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.

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