The New Normal

The Pew Research Center recently asked a sample of Americans what they consider to be life's necessities. Here's a chart with the key results.

Felix Salmon reacts:

I'm quite surprised that the landline phone is still considered more of a necessity than a cellphone -- I can't imagine that's going to continue to be the case for long. I am interested in the huge drop in the perceived necessity of the microwave, however. Yes, there's something about microwaves which just feels old-fashioned and unnecessary -- but the microwave hasn't really been replaced by anything ... I'm also surprised that 52% of people consider a TV set to be a necessity, while only 23% of people consider cable or satellite TV to be a necessity: subtract the second number from the first, and you get a good indication of the sheer power of network TV. I'm sure that, too, will erode quickly.

The huge drop in the perceived necessity of clothes dryers, home air conditioning, and dishwashers is I think partly a response to the economic crisis, but more a response to the bursting of the housing bubble: people don't define themselves by their appliances in the way that they did during the housing boom.

What went up in perceived necessity? Nothing, really -- nothing more than the margin of error of 3.6 percentage points, anyway. Although it would have been interesting to see the results if intangibles had been included in the survey.

Well put. The Pew survey findings show the fragility of the old suburban, fordist, "keeping up with the Jones'" consumption bundle and lifestyle.  But while that "old order" appears to be declining, we're still awaiting something new to replace it.

What might that be: What are some elements of a new normal?.

If the Pew data are accurate, it's not tech-driven consumption - less than a third (31 percent) of those surveyed consider high-speed internet a necessity, and just 4 percent say they need an iPod.

But there are many things that are not asked about, as Salmon notes, like " intangibles,'" or spending on personal development (education, learning), higher-quality food, exercise, health-care, green products, or a cleaner environment.

The rise of a new set of consumption priorities - and a new lifestyle - are tied to longer-run economic recovery. Ever since Keynes, government spending has been seen as a key mechanism for stimulating demand. New Deal spending and the rise of military Keynesianism during World War II are frequently cited as being critical to recovery from the Great Depression.  While government spending can play a useful short-term role, it is insufficient to power real long-run growth. New patterns of private consumption are required to undergird the broad and sustained level of consumer demand that is needed to fuel sustained innovation, enable the growth and expansion of new industries, and drive long-run economic development. It was the rise of suburbanization and of the post-war suburban way-of-life, as I've noted before, that powered post-war recovery and expansion.

The emergence of new consumption patterns takes time. The Great Depression began in 1929, and it was not until the 1950s and 1960s that the new suburban lifestyle burst onto the scene fully formed. My dad was an eight-year-old in 1929; my mother just five at the time.  Both grew up in small apartments in Newark's Italian district, packed with nine or so family members. My father's family had no refrigerator and even lacked full plumbing. They could scarcely imagine how dramatically their lives would change by the late fifties, when they bought their first suburban home (on what was farm when they were growing up), filled with all manner of modern conveniences, not to mention a shiny Chevy Impala that my dad used to commute to work in the garage.

It's still very early in the resetting process. Transformations on this scale take time. So it's hard to fully grasp what a new consumption bundle and new lifestyle might look like. But one thing is clear:  It will be less oriented around the auto-housing industrial complex: We'll all be spending relatively less on cars and housing and energy, that is, if we're going to have money left over to create demand for the emerging, new stuff required to power a new round of growth and prosperity.

Iff we look closely it's possible to discern some emergent threads of a new consumption pattern. We're already experiencing the fall of some of the biggest symbols of post-war consumption - big cars and SUVs, oversized suburban McMansions, and conspicuous consumption of various sorts. There's a shift toward smaller cars and smaller dwellings, toward walkable neighborhoods; toward more authentic, organic and energy-efficient products; and from material goods to experiences generally.

None of this has come together yet,  Still, it's likely that sooner or later these emergent trends and patterns will congeal into a new, more organized consumption bundle and way of life.

How long might it take for this new normal to emerge, and what will it look like? 

Your thoughts?