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there’s something about microwaves which just feels old-fashioned and unnecessary — but the microwave hasn’t really been replaced by anything … I’m also surprised that 52% of people consider a TV set to be a necessity, while only 23% of people consider cable or satellite TV to be a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.