“Buddy, can you paradigm?”
So, in our spare time (anybody finding that there’s more spare time out there these days?) it’s interesting to think about how much life may change when the pandemic recedes, or if it will change at all. It’s a safe bet that there will be significant shifts in the way we live, work and play, at least for a period of time. This has been an existential shock to the global system and a preview of future pandemics that may be much deeper and deadlier (for a sobering look at that scenario, pick up Lawrence Wright’s new book, “The End of October”). So, if we don’t change, we will have fulfilled, at global scale, the definition of insanity. Here are just five long-term shifts we can expect to see.
Fiscal Policy. Remember when the national debt was Public Enemy No. 1? Debt has now taken on staggering proportions as we rush to bail out workers, businesses, nonprofits, and state and local governments. By the time we get a vaccine, the US will have portioned out up to $10 trillion in stimulus funds and the national debt will be approaching something like 110 percent of GDP (the previous debt record was just after WWII, when it was 106 percent of GDP). The weird thing is that nobody is arguing about this hockey stick of debt. As Alan Blinder pointed out, we’re adopting the Scarlett O’Hara attitude: “I won’t think about that now, I’ll think about that tomorrow.” The financial tail on the pandemic will stretch well beyond our field of vision. No one could have predicted this level of government spending just six months ago. Back then, as an example, California had a budget surplus of $7 billion. Today, California (and many other states) are predicting catastrophic cuts in public services without a federal bailout. The pandemic has restructured fiscal policy in the US for at least a generation.
The Workplace. Our daughter was just informed by her company that there’s no need to work in the office until August. Google has told its people they can work from home for the remainder of the year. Even when it’s safe to go back to work, it won’t be the same. Employers will build in more flexibility for the workforce. Technology for telecommuting has improved and people have become much better at using it. Companies will reassess long-term real estate obligations. Overall, businesses will be working hard at building more resilience across a number of dimensions, with the workplace at the center. The office will become less of a fixed physical structure and more of a collaborative concept. There could be some unforeseen consequences of this shift. It’s estimated, for instance, that between 11 to 31 percent of marriages began as workplace romances. Without our cubicles, will we see a decline in the marriage (and the reproductive) rate?
Delivery Culture. In the month of April, online grocery deliveries went from $1 billion to $5 billion per month. Uber has launched a multibillion dollar offer to acquire the restaurant delivery service Grubhub. On March 13, Amazon announced it was hiring 100,000 new workers to meet demand growth; less than a month later it had made all those hires and announced an additional 75,000 planned hires, with a parallel rise in compensation of more than $800 million. Wayfair and Etsy both reported a doubling of business over the past year. For consumers who hadn’t shifted to online, the pandemic made the shift for them. Given the length of the lockdown, these behaviors are becoming hard-wired. With the Darwinian shakeout in brick-and-mortar retail, online commerce has solidified its status as the new normal.
The New Journalism. Back in the olden days, kids, “New Journalism” referred to a reporting style led by people like Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin and Joan Didion, who all wrote for newspapers and magazines and appropriated the conventions of fiction to create a new and compelling style of journalism. In the 21stcentury, the changes in journalism aren’t stylistic, but structural and cultural. The pandemic is accelerating the demise of small and mid-market newspapers, which has been thoroughly documented by Penelope Muse Abernathy and her team at the University of North Carolina. At the end of the day we are likely to be left with a barbell industry – a few large metropolitan or national franchises on one end (NYT, LAT, etc.) and small, hyperlocal papers at the other. More profound is the cultural shift in the news industry. Objectivity, the old North Star of journalism, is fading and blinking, making way for “contextual” journalism, personal opinions and alignment with a chosen narrative. For examples of how narrative journalism can create divergent realities, compare coverage of the Michael Flynn case on Fox and MSNBC; these reporters don’t work on the same planet, much less in the same industry. At the extremes, we’re given fever dreams like the documentary “Plandemic,” which weaves conspiracy theories out of whole cloth. There is no comfort that things will return to “normal” once the pandemic ends. The cultural atomization of the media is here to stay and will only become more pronounced. The new media ecosystem both reflects and drives our partisan culture. The burden is on us as media consumers to separate signal from noise. As A.J. Liebling once said, presciently, “People everywhere confuse what they read in newspapers with news.” Good luck figuring it out.
A Sense of Who We Are. This shift may be at once the most nuanced but profound. We have been humbled by this thing. It has shown us that, despite our amazing advances in technology, the arts and industry, we are fundamentally vulnerable as a species. We are, even more fundamentally, connected as a species. We share the same biology and, when invaded with a virus like corona, Marburg, Ebola or influenza, we all respond the same way at a biological level. There is no doubt that we’ll see a restructuring of global supply chains to create more local control; that biosecurity will be seen by some as a competitive advantage and not a cooperative imperative; and that we will come out of this with new dimensions of geopolitical tensions. But one hopes that we also come out of this with a new appreciation of our shared existence and our shared vulnerability. And, as a result, that we will move forward with just a little bit more respect for our commonalities and more tolerance for our differences. Peace out.