March 11, 2021 marks one year since the World Heath Organization declared Covid-19 a global pandemic. This is a good day to assess the real post-pandemic future. If, like us, you were paying attention a year ago, the official pandemic announcement came after many people could see that the pandemic was here. We had begun our own family preparations for the long-haul pandemic in February 2020, stocking up on groceries and some other goods, anticipating a 3-4 month lock-down. I chronicled those preparations a year ago here.
We did not know that the pandemic would become as deeply impactful as it did, largely the result of a lack of national leadership or coordinated international action to limit the pandemic. The exception was the vigor with which the scientific community threw itself into the search for vaccines, producing vaccines in less than a year that will be seen by history as an astonishing success. Global political leadership failed for the most part. New Zealand, Singapore, the Republic of China (Taiwan), Vietnam, and some other success stories illustrated what aggressive and focused national leadership and a unified citizenry could accomplish in a pandemic crisis. But these countries were the exception.
Globally, the fact that the world did not immediately come together to create a coordinated response was surprising, even shocking. For decades science fiction writers, futurists and others have speculated that what humanity needed was an outside threat – an alien invasion – to awaken us to the fact that we are one species, all in this together. It would seem that a novel pandemic virus would qualify as such an alien invasion. But instead of coming together the world immediately splintered into an “every nation for itself” approach to the crisis. Even within nations – the U.S. and the UK being the prime examples – populations split along political lines, with Presidents and entire political parties aggressively trying to mischaracterize and mis-manage the crisis purely for political gain, no matter how many people died in the process. I think we can conclude that at this stage in our species development we, as of yet, lack the maturity to respond as one to an external threat.
As the pandemic took hold and the lock-downs and quarantines began, thought leaders, futurists and others began to furiously publish lists of all the things that the pandemic would “change forever.” Cities would dry up and die as people fled them for the countryside (interestedly, this is precisely the common assumption, and behavior of the wealthy, during the successive great plagues in Europe). People would never return to offices and office culture, as they discovered the joys of working in their sweats from home via Zoom and other video apps. Restaurants would close and never return. The introduction of AI to replace human work would accelerate, and the jobs lost in the pandemic would be lost forever. Business travel, in-person conferences and conventions would not return to previous levels. Forbes, for example, in May of 2020 summarized 6 such “forever”changes in the workplace:
1. Corporate flexibility – successful companies will make much more accommodations for remote work
2. Headquarters 2.0 – Headquarters will emphasize flexible spaces and open interaction over offices.
3. Work-ready homes – home offices, home video studios, and super fast internet will become a necessity in all homes.
4. E-learning for everyone – the concept that people will learn remotely more than in-person will become a given
5. Business attire is retiring – the trend toward casual attire for business will accelerate quickly.
6. Video virtuosos – people will rise based on their video talent and there is no putting the camera back in the closet.
I on the other hand went the opposite direction. In the face of all the lists of forever changes that I was seeing, I tweeted that the answer to the question of what the pandemic would permanently change was “almost nothing.” I was wrong about that. But most of the change lists were wrong too. A few examples…
- The idea that cities were dead and would not come back. This will seem ludicrous in a year or two from now, as new entrepreneurs flood the now empty store fronts. They will re-invent the first floor of cities. People will flock back to cities so long as the rents stay affordable. All the advantages that cities provide socially, environmentally and economically have not been changed by the pandemic.
- The idea that office culture is dead as people will prefer, forever, working from home over Zoom. Just as when the ability to telecommute became possible in the 1990’s, we will discover that there is a percentage of people who indeed prefer to work mostly by themselves, and mostly from home if allowed. But they may represent 10-20% of the total working population, not to mention that only certain office jobs are suitable for permanent at-home work. What we will discover instead is that we will revert to pre-pandemic office culture more quickly than people expect. Of course some offices will downsize for economic reasons and encourage/enable flexible arrangements for remote work. The old forecast of Craig McCaw (pioneer of the cellular phone business) that in the future people will travel to get together but not simply to perform basic work may come true. Offices may be designed more for that getting together than for sitting in isolation doing basic work. But, bottom line, we will be shocked at the robustness of office culture in a year or two or three.
- Homes will become the permanent workplace. In reality this has been happening for a long time, certainly since the World Wide Web began Also in reality this takes us in many ways back to the future, to a time when most people lived above their shop downstairs or in the farmhouse on their land. We lived where we worked. But, while this is a trend, I think its a case where we need to “beware the permanent trend.” To “work from home” is another way of saying “to live at work.” And I will re-emphasize that a limited subset of people are comfortable doing this for the long term. Most will return to the commute and to the office/workplace when afforded the opportunity.
So, what is the real post-Covid pandemic future? You may not be pleased to learn that the honest answer is that we mostly do not know. A few years after the last great plague in London in 1665, it was basically impossible to tell the plague had ever happened in the city. I will not be shocked at all if, about five years from now, we look around and discover that life and work have returned to a style that seems more like life before the pandemic. Yes, I think many workplaces will be more flexible and that we will do more video interaction than pre-pandemic. Yes, we might commute a bit less and travel for business a bit less. AI and automation will replace work here, amplify human work over there. But the desire to return to a pre-covid normalcy may prove to be deep.
There are, at the same time, three areas in which I think that long-lasting change has taken place, with as yet unknown consequences.
- Women in the workplace. The pandemic hit working women especially hard, as they in the age old pattern had to take on more of the increased responsibility for childcare and education, meal planning and preparation, and general home management, to the extent that reports are that more have left the workplace than have men. This decline in work-force participation will take some time to make up.
- The psychological and emotional toll of the pandemic is only now revealing itself. This has impacted single people and children most ferociously. When in the beginning we expected 3-4 months of disruption it all seemed an adventure. When the isolation dragged into a full year and beyond, only now are psychologists and educators and social scientists beginning to ask what the development toll has been and how long-lasting the impact may be. Consider, for example the baby born early in the pandemic, who knows only interaction with their parents and perhaps with some family members via a screen. As we reemerge into society post-vaccine I suspect we will discover many wounded.
- Fundamental scientific advances in understanding novel viruses, the use of RNA for vaccine development and possibly now other disease treatments. This will be, almost certainly, the sliver lining of the pandemic.
Final note. Some compare the pandemic to global warming, and say our experience with the pandemic is a rehearsal for how humanity must deal with climate change. Here the news is not so good, because, as noted earlier, we can see that humanity did not come together as one to deal with the pandemic but instead splintered. If we can learn to behave differently and in a more unified way as a result, then that may be good lesson after all.