POSTED BY: | August 24, 2010

Pew Research Center

One day you’re the brightest star in the galaxy. Then something new comes along—and suddenly you’re a relic. It’s a turn of fate that awaits sports heroes, movie stars, political leaders. And, yes, even household appliances.

After occupying center stage in the American household for much of the 20th century, two of the grand old luminaries of consumer technology—the television set and the landline telephone—are suffering from a sharp decline in public perception that they are necessities of life.

Just 42% of Americans say they consider the television set to be a necessity, according to a new nationwide survey from the Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends project. Last year, this figure was 52%. In 2006, it was 64%.

The drop-off has been less severe for the landline telephone: Some 62% of Americans say it’s a necessity of life, down from 68% last year.


But there’s a related trend that’s more perilous for the landline: Fully 47% of the public say that its younger, smarter and more nimble cousin—the cell phone—is a necessity of life.

Even more worrisome for both 20th-century household fixtures are the oh-so-very-21st-century attitudes of today’s young adults. Fewer than half (46%) of 18- to 29-year-old survey respondents consider the landline phone a necessity of life. Fewer than three-in-ten (29%) say the same about the television set.

The Pew Research Center telephone survey (landline as well as cell phone) was conducted among a nationally representative sample of 2,967 adults from May 11 through May 31, 2010.
Using a list of a dozen different items designed to make everyday life more productive, convenient, comfortable or entertaining, it asked respondents whether they consider each item a “necessity” or a “luxury.”

As past Pew Research reports on this topic have shown (2009,2006), the public’s collective judgments have waxed and waned in recent times with the changing state of the economy.

From 1996 through 2006—a period of economic expansion and heavy consumer spending—a rising share of Americans saw more items on the list as necessities rather than luxuries. Since 2006—as the housing bubble burst, the economy sank into a deep recession and consumer spending throttled down—the trend has moved the opposite way. A rising share now sees more everyday items as luxuries than necessities.

It’s Not Just the Economy

But the economy isn’t the only factor driving these numbers. For several items on the list—the television set and the landline phone are prime examples—innovations in technology also seem to be playing a role.

Indeed, the dichotomy posed by the question “luxury or necessity” may itself be something of a relic. For some items, a more appropriate question in 2010 may be whether consumers consider these venerable appliances to be “necessary” or “superfluous.”

In the case of the landline phone, a rising thumbs-down verdict comes not just from the survey but also from the marketplace. According to a Pew Research Center analysis of government data, just 74% of U.S. households now have a landline phone. This is down from a peak of 97% in 2001.

During this same time period, use of cell phones has skyrocketed. Fully 82% of adults now use cell phones, up from 53% in 2000. There are now more cell phones in the U.S. than landline phones. And—as if to add insult to injury—today’s young adults are spending less time talking on their cell phones and more time texting.

Read more of the report here.