Richard Florida
by Richard Florida
Wed May 6th 2009 at 7:30am UTC

The New Normal?

The Pew Research Center recently asked a sample of Americans what they consider to be life’s necessities. Here’s a chart summarizing the key results.

Felix Salmon reacts:

I’m quite surprised that the landline phone is still considered more of a necessity than a cellphone — I can’t imagine that’s going to continue to be the case for long. I am interested in the huge drop in the perceived necessity of the microwave, however. Yes, there’s something about microwaves which just feels old-fashioned and unnecessary — but the microwave hasn’t really been replaced by anything … I’m also surprised that 52% of people consider a TV set to be a necessity, while only 23% of people consider cable or satellite TV to be a necessity: subtract the second number from the first, and you get a good indication of the sheer power of network TV. I’m sure that, too, will erode quickly.

The huge drop in the perceived necessity of clothes dryers, home air conditioning, and dishwashers is I think partly a response to the economic crisis, but more a response to the bursting of the housing bubble: people don’t define themselves by their appliances in the way that they did during the housing boom.

What went up in perceived necessity? Nothing, really — nothing more than the margin of error of 3.6 percentage points, anyway. Although it would have been interesting to see the results if intangibles had been included in the survey.

I mainly agree with Salmon. The results show the fragility of the old suburban, fordist, “keeping up with the Jones’” lifestyle. Looks to me though that the old order has declined, but we’re still awaiting something to replace it.

But this begs a bigger question: When might we see a tipping point toward something new – a new normal, so to speak.

The numbers for high-speed internet and iPod are not so encouraging in terms of potentially signaling the rise of a new higher-tech consumption bundle. But there are many things that are not probed, as Salmon notes. I wonder what the results would be, not just for intangibles but for experiential goods and for things like personal development (education, learning), higher-quality food, exercise, health-care, and a cleaner, greener environment.

It’s important to begin to understand what this new consumption bundle and new lifestyle might be for a simple reason. It’s not government spending that ultimately will set the stage for long-run recovery, but a shift in private consumption that provides the broad pattern of consumer demand that fuels innovation and new patterns of production. As I’ve noted before, it was the rise of suburbanism that powered post-war recovery and expansion.

We’re in the earliest phases of the current reset so it is still hard to tell what the core components of that new consumption bundle might be. The Great Depression began in 1929, for example, and it was not until the 1950s and 1960s that the new suburban lifestyle burst onto the scene fully formed. My dad was an eight-year-old boy in 1929 living with his nine family members in a tiny Newark apartment without a refrigerator or full plumbing. Like so many others of his generation, he bought his first suburban home in the late 1950s. He could not even imagine the total transformation of his lifestyle 20 or 30 years earlier, buying his own home on what was then a farm, filling it with all manner of modern conveniences, and driving his Chevy Impala car to work.

It may not be apparent yet, but a new consumption bundle and a new way of life will have to emerge sooner or later. It will have to be less oriented around the auto-housing industrial complex: We’ll all have to spend less on these things, so we can create demand for the stuff that will power and build our future.

If we look closely we can already notice some of the emergent strands or threads of this new normal – in the shift away from big cars and big houses, away from conspicuous consumption and toward not just organic and energy-efficient, green products, but from material goods to experiences, health, and personal development.

But, it’s still very early in the resetting process. Transformations on this scale take time.

Still, I can’t help but wonder what the shape of the new consumption and new lifestyle might be, and would very much welcome your thoughts.

8 Responses to “The New Normal?”

  1. Rockfish Says:

    “The results show the fragility of the old suburban, fordist, “keeping up with the Jones’” lifestyle. Looks to me though that the old order has declined..”
    Not sure how you draw this conclusion. The elephant in the room is CARS. Statistically unchanged from ‘06 to ‘09, and the only thing on this list that directly correlates to where and how people choose to live.
    Everything else is just a appliance or toy within a home, and has no bearing or influence on how large that home is or whether that home is urban or suburban, but the overwhelming and unabated worship of the car does.

  2. Fred Says:

    Pew needs to refine the question on cars to track the possibility of more subtle changes. i.e. How many people “need” multiple cars vs. one car. Does it have to be a new SUV or will a smaller, perhaps used car do? The drop in car sales indicates the size & make-up of the car fleet may be changing.

    I live 2 miles from the downtown of a large city with good bus system connections and next to a major university but I still “need” a car to avoid wasting a lot of time. Our 2 person household averages 6000 miles a year which I believe is half the national average.

  3. Rob Says:

    I think it’s important to remember that this survey did not ask people to rank these items in terms of importance; it simply asked a yes/no question for each item. I might consider my iPod more necessary for life than my car, but I’m not asked to make that distinction, just to answer “yes” for both items.

  4. Buzzcut Says:

    OK, I’m a broken record (remember those?)…

    in the shift away from big cars and big houses, away from conspicuous consumption and toward not just organic and energy-efficient, green products, but from material goods to experiences, health, and personal development.


    Actually, what’s kind of interesting to me is that SWPLs think that they’re being anti-materialist and even anti-capitalist when they make these choices, but is there any doubt that it will be capitalists that provide the “experiences, health, and personal development.”?

  5. CR Says:

    Could the decline in appliances also be partly due to homemakers/homeowners becoming more energy conscious? I like living in my home, but I will air dry clothes and wash dishes by hand.

  6. Eric Says:

    I suspect that the decline of the microwave might be tied to the rise of organic food, farmer’s markets and “foodies”. It hasn’t been replaced, but it was probably the least necessary thing on the list to begin with – useful if you want a nutrient deficient pre-cooked meal that tastes like plastic in under two minutes, but not good for much else.

    I suspect you’d get drastically different answers about the necessity of air conditioning if you ask the question in January vs. July.

    Cable TV and landlines probably change big time with age. I’d love to see an >30 and <30 break down of the data.

    On the car question, I think far more revealing would be a question about *multiple* cars. I have a strong suspicion that two and three car households are declining.

  7. Michael Wells Says:

    The number of cell-only households just passed the number of landline-only, although most families have both.

    Some of these can be adjusted. Better insulation and construction reduces the need for A/C in most places (so does healthier lifestyle and losing weight). Multiple cars declines with better transit. Some things are taste. I could live without a TV but not a computer.

    I’m surprised by the difference between home computer and high-speed internet. To me they seem interdependent.

  8. RosaT Says:

    I agree that the Pew Research on what America Needs is quite limited to the stereotypical consumptive lifestyle, devoid of anything but material possesions.
    Lacking in the survey is taking a look at the value that people are placing on non-material aspects of their lives that offer personal fulfillment. These are gaining importance in the “new normal”. I believe that the economic downturn abounds in opportunities for new creative ways that we can model our personal lives to be more fulfilling, that is not as dependent on financial wealth. Some of these include following our passions, spending more quality time with family and friends, becoming more resilient and re-prioritizing key aspects of our lives, reflecting on and shifting our core values, lifestyles and spending habits, reaching out and helping others, even when our personal financial situation is deteriorating. If these were placed on our personal balance sheets, we could see that even during the recession, many have found ways to compensate for their financial loss through non-fiancial changes in their lifestyles.
    Recently, I found it extremely helpful during the economic downturn to create a positive attitude by participating in the “upside to the downturn” community group including a weekly Starting Your Week on the Upside column. It’s a place where folks are sharing insights and stories about how they are creating an upside and improving their lives in spite of the downturn. Check it out: