View Of Luxuries, Necessities Shifting What's a household luxury and what's a necessity? Perspectives are changing. Microwaves are now seen as luxuries, while some newer technologies — including flat-screen TVs — are considered necessities. Paul Taylor, executive vice president of Pew Research Center, discusses the shift.
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View Of Luxuries, Necessities Shifting

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View Of Luxuries, Necessities Shifting

View Of Luxuries, Necessities Shifting

View Of Luxuries, Necessities Shifting

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What's a household luxury and what's a necessity? Perspectives are changing. Microwaves are now seen as luxuries, while some newer technologies — including flat-screen TVs — are considered necessities. Paul Taylor, executive vice president of Pew Research Center, discusses the shift.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From the Pew Research Center comes this wisdom about the things we buy with our credit cards or our checks, or who knows, maybe even with cash. While we only distinguish between necessities and luxuries, the border between the two is a moving target. Pew has just published a poll that asked Americans whether they think specific consumer items fall into either category. And Paul Taylor of Pew is here to tell us what they found. Hi.

Mr. PAUL TAYLOR (Pew Research Center): Hello. How are you?

SIEGEL: That line that I spoke of is, I gather, what you referred to as the luxury necessity perceptual boundary. And you found a reversal of a trend in the survey.

Mr. TAYLOR: Absolutely. We asked about a dozen different items that are sort of the workhorses of our lives, things like the microwave oven, the clothes dryer, the TV set, the air conditioner, the dishwasher. And what we found, we took this survey earlier this month, what we found is a very significant drop since the last time we took this survey, which is in 2006, in people rating all of those items as necessities. Yesterday's necessities have become today's luxuries.

What's even more interesting is that when we asked the same survey questions a decade or so ago, people rated most of those items as luxuries. So we went up the necessity curve and now we've come back down the necessities.

SIEGEL: Now we're coming down. So what are some of the items now that fewer people define as necessities?

Mr. TAYLOR: Well, the microwave oven has taken a big tumble. Three years ago, about two-thirds of the country said, yup, got to have it. Now only about half the country says got to have it. The television set, for goodness sakes. We or other organizations have been asking a question, is that a luxury or a necessity for 35 years. We got the lowest rating ever. Just 52 percent of the public says a television set is a necessity today.

SIEGEL: A clothes dryer ranks very, very high in what we think of as necessities.

Mr. TAYLOR: It shot up in the mid '90s to 2006, but it's now dropped back down. It too has taken a tumble. About two-thirds of the country says a clothes dryer is a necessity. Three years ago, about 80 percent said that.

SIEGEL: How is the dishwasher doing in terms of necessity/luxury?

Mr. TAYLOR: Dishwasher has taken a hit. I mean, here you think of the dishwasher. My goodness, it's an old reliable. It's a standby, not terribly sexy, but it makes our life easier. The dishwasher took a pretty big hit. It's down 14 percentage points. About 4 in 10, close to 4 in 10 people three years ago said you have to have a dishwasher. We're now down to closer to just 1 in 5 who say that.

SIEGEL: I want you to tell us what you found out about people's view of landlines versus cell phones. Who thinks which is more necessary and which is more luxurious?

Mr. TAYLOR: Younger adults are much more inclined than older adults to say cell phones are a necessity. Older adults are much more inclined than younger adults to say that landline phones are a necessity. But to me this is going to be one of the great head-to-head battles on the luxury/necessity front for the coming years. I mean, there's a real interesting question as to whether the good old fashion landline phone is the horse and buggy of the 21st century as cell phone adoption rates go up and up and up.

SIEGEL: What importance do you attach to, say, a decline in the number of people who say a television is a necessity, as opposed to the number of households that don't have television sets? It doesn't seem to be radically on the rise right now.

Mr. TAYLOR: Well, no. I don't think that's radically on the rise. But clearly, new technology is now giving us on our home computer with high-speed Internet access the ability to get a lot of what we - used to only be available from the television, now it's available through another device and gadget. So I think that's part of what's going on here.

But, you know, the elephant in the room on questions about consumer behaviors and perceptions is the recession. It has clearly created this creed of thrift. And we looked at the economic impact of the recession and we tried to see, well, if you've been really hit hard by the recession, has that led you to change your perceptual boundaries here between luxury and necessity?

Interestingly, it turns out that the perceptual boundaries have changed across the board, among high income and among low income, among people who have lost their jobs, or someone in their family have lost their jobs, or among people who haven't been hit that way. Someone suggested that maybe what's going on here is a kind of vicarious anxiety, whether you or your family have suffered a personal hardship or not, you read about it in the paper all the time, you see it on TV and you realize things are rough. I feel a little bad saying I got to have some of these things. Let's put those in the luxury camp.

SIEGEL: Well, Paul Taylor of the Pew Research Center, thanks a lot for talking with us.

Mr. TAYLOR: My pleasure.

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