Parents know that most children don’t understand the difference between needs and wants. They need a new toy, a new dress, a laptop, a car. Well, it turns out that we adults aren’t much different. Over time, our wants become needs and we no longer understand the difference between the two.
The Pew Research Center has just released a fascinating survey called “Luxury or Necessity.” Fascinating, a little depressing, too. At least some Americans, it turns out, say they cannot live without air conditioning in their cars, cell phones, cable or satellite TV, high-speed Internet connections, flat-screen TVs and even iPods. (OK, only 3% said they needed an iPod, but still.)
As consumer goods become more widely distributed, more people come to see them as necessities. The percentage of American adults who describe microwave ovens as a necessity, rather than a luxury, has more than double in the past decade, to 68%. Some 49% say cell phones are necessity. And 51% say they need a computer, up from a mere 3% in 1983, when a similar survey was done. Here’s a chart with more data from the survey:
The Pew researchers note: “One pattern was consistent: wherever there has been a significant change in the past decade in the public’s judgment about these items, it’s always been in the direction of necessity.”
What to make of all this? Putting the best face on it, you could argue that as our standard of living has improved, we have come to take for granted our good fortune in being able to afford more and more stuff. Or you could see this as testimony to the power of media and advertising, whose purpose is essentially to convince us that just about everything that anyone wants to sell is a necessity. Or you could say that the ever-expanding list of things American needs reflects a social values that fail to distinguish between the things that matter and those that do not. Or that rampant consumerism is going to destroy the planet.
I’m not against consumption. Hey, I’ve already confessed to enjoying my new 50-inch hi-def TV set. In a few days, our family of four will soon own four iPods. But I can’t help but wonder what a rural villager in Africa or India would think about the growing “needs” of Americans. What do you think?