From the kitchen to the laundry room to the home entertainment center, Americans are paring down the list of familiar household appliances they say they can’t live without, according to a new national survey by the Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends project.

No longer do substantial majorities of the public say a microwave oven, a television set or even home air conditioning is a necessity. Instead, nearly half or more now see each of these items as a luxury. Similarly, the proportion that considers a dishwasher or a clothes dryer to be essential has dropped sharply since 2006.

One thousand and three people were asked to answer the question “Do you think this item is a necessity?” about twelve specific appliances and services. The answers turned out to be surprisingly different from the answers in a similar survey taken in 2006… “the year before the recession set in and marked the outer limits of America’s housing bubble.” It’s important to remember that for the previous ten years, the percentage of people who ranked these twelve appliances and services as necessities had been steadily increasing.

Not so in the more recent survey.

Those appliances or services that have already been around for decades or more… what the survey calls “old-tech” and “middle-aged” items… have all dropped in the ratings, with fewer people thinking of them as necessities this year compared to the previous surveys.

  • Microwave oven… decreased 21 percent.
  • Clothes dryer… decreased 17 percent.
  • Air conditioning at home… decreased 16 percent.
  • Dishwasher… decreased 14 percent.
  • Television… decreased 12 percent.
  • Cable or satellite television service… decreased 10 percent.

By contrast, the so-called “new-tech” appliances and services remained essentially unchanged (within the 3.6 percent margin of error) in the necessity ratings.

  • Home computer… decreased 1 percent.
  • Cell phone… stayed the same.
  • iPod… increased 1 percent.
  • High-speed Internet service… increased 2 percent.
  • Flat-screen television… increased 3 percent.
  • Automobile… decreased 3 percent.

The one exception to this trend was the very “old-tech” device… the automobile… which “retains its pride of place at the top of America’s list of everyday necessities.” Despite economic conditions, apparently Americans continue to see their cars as a necessary part of life, not as a luxury.

Surveys like these can only hint at what is behind these decreasing percentages. Has television’s ranking decreased because people are watching less television or because they are switching their viewing habits to the Internet and their smart phones? Is the decreased use of appliances like dryers, dishwashers, and air conditioners for economic reasons or part of an overall attempt to reduce energy consumption?