While I was at my grandma’s house this week I read Buying In: What We Buy and Who We Are, a fascinating book by Rob Walker. There will be more posts to come in the next few weeks, but for starters, I was struck by the results of a 2006 survey Walker mentions by the Pew Research Center. The survey asked people if various items were luxuries or necessities. Here are the results from 2006 and 1996:

Clearly, over time we’re defining more and more items as necessities rather than luxuries:

A breakdown of some results by age:

If I had to guess, I’d think the fact that younger people are less likely to say a TV is a necessity than older people is due not to less concern about TV but more willingness to watch content online. Does that seem reasonable? Other explanations?

The survey found that the higher a person’s income, the more items they define as a necessity:

The biggest differences by income were for dishwashers, cell phones, computers, and high-speed internet, which are more likely to be defined as a necessity as income increases.

The Pew Center’s website has links to more detailed breakdowns, as well as full info on the question wording, methodology, etc. And as the authors say in the summary, the results show only a one-way change: in no case did they find that the overall percent defining something as a necessity decreased between 1996 and 2006. As they put it,

The old adage proclaims that “necessity is the mother of invention.” These findings serve as a reminder that the opposite is also true: invention is the mother of necessity. Throughout human history, from the wheel to the computer, previously unimaginable inventions have created their own demand, and eventually their own need.

The income data would seem to back this up: what we have, we often come to define as necessities.

I would love to see an international comparison of some sort. I’ll see what I can find.

UPDATE: I haven’t found an international comparison yet, but I discovered that the Pew Research Center conducted the survey again in 2009 to see if attitudes had changed during the recession. Quite a striking change for several items: