What We Think We Need

I’m selling my car. For the first time in my life, I am not going to have regular access to a car. I bought my first car when I was sixteen, only a few weeks after getting my license. Since then, the only time I haven’t had a car within a few blocks of me (street parking can be a bitch) was the semester I spent in Paris, where cars are delightfully unnecessary. Well, I’m making that step. I’m selling my car, buying some removable panniers for my bike because my messenger bag just isn’t cutting it for grocery shopping, and just accepting that Amtrak is the only way to visit my mother now.

As little as four or five months ago, I would’ve vehemently protested that I NEED a car. It’s possible that in four or five months, I will feel that way again and I’ll end up buying a car. But who knows. I want to try. My goal is to go a full year before I consider whether or not I will purchase a replacement vehicle. I think that’s a good window.

So I was really excited to see, in a chart over at Sociological Images, that Americans have actually lowered their rate of viewing cars as a necessity. (That was an awkward sentence, sorry.)

The chart lists 14 high-dollar, “first world” items and asks if they are luxuries or necessities. From 1996 to 2006, the rate of ranking a car as a necessity has gone down by 2%. Everything else has increased.

I’m actually surprised at the low rate of responses for things like “home computer” and “high speed internet.” I’m genuinely astounded at how LOW cable TV is–considering how pop-culture and celebrity-centric our culture is, you’d think that cable TV would be essential for far more people.

I would be curious to see that chart for the last couple years, though, as with the recession, I would imagine that things have changed. Or at least I would hope that they would.

My standards are biased–the wiring in my apartment is so awful that I literally cannot have air conditioning, because it would pop the circuit, unless I turn off everything else in my apartment (unplugging the fridge is up for debate). I live here not because I enjoy the charm of living in a shithole, but because it’s what I can afford. So when people tell me that they can’t live without something, my thought is generally, “Yeah, sure, til you can’t afford it. Then you might be surprised!”

On the other hand, part of what drove our economic crisis was the concept of wanting something you can’t afford so badly that you THINK you need it. No one NEEDS an Escalade. No one NEEDS a Coach purse. But conspicuous consumption is just such an ingrained part of our society that luxuries become necessities and people go deeply into debt in order to maintain the kind of lifestyle that is thought to be “needed.”

So where would we stand now?

Has tough economic times changed our perception of “necessity,” or are we still basing our priorities on debt?

I would also be curious to see regional necessities, and perhaps some regionally-slanted options (for example, in the Boston region, “access to the T” would be a valid thing to rate as necessity or perk, whereas in a rural area, public transit is probably not even an option. I, however, consider access to the T to be much more important than air conditioning in my home or car. Someone in Florida would probably disagree with me).

What we need, what we consume… it’s always interesting stuff.

Anyways, my right eyelid has been twitching for most of the afternoon which is WEIRD and IRRITATING, so I’m just gonna go ahead and stop this here.


06/16/2010. Tags: , . Uncategorized.


  1. the daily sloth replied:

    Congratulations 🙂
    I’m 30 and NEVER drove a car. Very interesting (and disturbing) link.

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