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Published: Thursday, 4/30/2009

Life's 'needs' unwanted in recession

What can't you live without?

No, not who - we know, you love your family - but what. What items do you consider essential in your daily life?

The answer to that, apparently, has been reshaped for us by the current economic downturn, "downturn" being a substitute for another word not usually found in mainstream newspapers.

But I digress.

Would you be surprised to learn fewer Americans now regard their microwave as a necessity?

Yes, the microwave: That which zaps our frozen vegetables, pops our popcorn, reheats the leftovers, and "bakes" more of our potatoes than we'd probably care to admit.

I've had no troubling believing the widely reported anecdotes about Americans' newfound willingness to distinguish between "luxury" and "necessity."

But I was pretty sure we were talking about, say, the difference between a vacation and a staycation - or, at least, the difference between fresh-caught fish and a box of frozen fish sticks, on sale.

Turns out, it can be even more basic.

A recent study by the Pew Research Center - a national think tank that studies American trends and attitudes - tells us some of the things we once considered necessities now look a lot more like luxuries.

But what surprised me is how some of these once-indispensable items are what researchers described as "old-tech" household appliances.

Take the microwave, for instance.

Pew says 47 percent of those polled now consider the Ultimate Reheating Machine to be a necessity, down from 68 percent just three years ago.

This mystifies me.

So does Pew's ranking of the clothes dryer. Their polling shows just 66 percent now say they gotta have it, compared with 83 percent in 2006.

This prompts me to ask: What, does everyone's mother do their laundry now?

Yes, I know: We're all supposed to be "greener" now, so maybe we're hanging the laundry outside more often. If so, great. Just please don't hand me clean underwear fresh off the clothesline in, I dunno, January.

Also lumped in with the "old-tech" bunch is the dishwasher. Again, mystifying. For one thing, it may be old-tech, but that machine is more energy-efficient than doing dishes by hand.

Beyond that, I find the dishwasher's 14 percent drop in the public's "necessity" perception a statistic which does not at all correlate with the fact that my household's personal dishwasher was recently shipped off to college. I miss her, but possibly I would miss my Maytag more.

But then, I hail from a generation that remembers how its mothers benefited from so-called "labor-saving" devices. As the Pew study discovered, it's technology we now find indispensable. About half of those surveyed said their cell phone is a must-have, unchanged from 2006 results.

Similarly, our devotion to our flat-screen TV is up by 3 percent, and the idea that our iPods are a mainstay of our existence climbed by 1 percent.

Meanwhile, 31 percent said they consider access to high-speed Internet to be a basic necessity, a statistic that grew by 2 percent in the last several years - and one I completely understand.

Which would you forfeit: The Internet, or your microwave?

Roberta de Boer is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact Roberta at:


or 419-724-6086.

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