Everything has changed. It has happened very quickly. Things that were important no longer matter. The Premier League, the NBA, the Euro’s, the golf (Masters, PGA tour, the Ryder Cup), and the Olympic games all centerpieces of the 2020 calendar are suspended, postponed, or canceled. Other major cultural and leisure activities have also not happened or are not going to happen. Movie releases, Broadway shows, weddings, concerts, and even children’s birthday parties and sleepovers have not happened. People realize that their health and the health of their loved ones, friends, and neighbors are more important than material things or cultural experiences. The longer this current crisis lasts, the more people get used to working from home, getting educated online, and having their groceries delivered to their door, the more it will become the “new normal.” Radical ideas are being discussed and may be necessary as we adjust to a new way of living. Entertainment and hobbies are changing as people get used to having to make their own fun.
Four things may have changed forever. First, the notion of Universal Basic Income has become a more mainstream idea. Once advocated by both the hardline left and the libertarian right, it is now promoted by mainstream economists. Second, many people who thought that their job didn’t allow them to work from home, certainly some sales roles, for example, have found a way to make it happen, and this could be a game-changer for how we work in the medium term. Thirdly, the possibilities of online education are becoming ever more apparent and could change the nature of school as we know it. Finally, people have become more and more used to getting deliveries of groceries and other goods to their doors instead of having to go to stores. The growth of apps like Peloton are even bringing personal training to our homes. These changes had already begun to a greater or lesser extent before this current crisis, but the necessity of the current situation is likely to take us past the tipping point so that there is no going back to the way things were before.
Once we get through this emergency, these changes have the possibility of changing the way we live, where we live, and how we spend our time. If people can work remotely, if their children can get educated online, if we can get deliveries to our doors, then it won’t matter so much where we live, which not only ends the grind of the commute but also reduces the demand for properties in expensive cities, while the possibility of Universal Basic Income opens up opportunities for people to spend more time connecting with people and doing things for their community or just the chance to follow their dream.
Before the horrors of the health crisis caused by the coronavirus, I had read a book called “21 lessons for the 21st Century,” by the best selling author and historian Yuval Noah Harari. He outlined several challenges facing humans in the 21st century. He was concerned about how infotech, particularly big data and the use of sophisticated algorithms, and the rapid advances occurring in biotechnology would have on the way humans live their lives.
He was also worried about the impact the changes would have on, among other things, democracy, work, and education. He warned of the possibility of the rise of the superhumans- the people who had access to the best that the new biotech world would create. These people would have the knowledge, the wealth, and the power to separate themselves from ordinary humans whom he worried would become a new “useless class” as billions of people are pushed out of the labor market by the tech revolution. The “useless class” doesn’t just apply to people of low education or who are lacking skills but applies to everyone who is not in the superhuman class. Doctors, engineers, accountants, and bank managers are as vulnerable to being replaced by Artificial Intelligence (AI) as truck drivers, shopkeepers, or fitness instructors.
One solution Harari suggests is, “If we manage to combine a universal economic safety net with strong communities and meaningful pursuits, losing our jobs to algorithms might actually turn out to be a blessing.”
As I was reading this book, Andrew Yang was running for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States on a platform that promised to give all American adults $1,000 per month. When the health crisis broke, both Democrats and Republicans were promising to provide all workers with a payment from the federal government while in other countries, economists are calling for helicopter payments, which amount to a short term version of Universal Basic Income. Since then, US lawmakers have agreed a 2 trillion boost for the US economy, including cheques of $1,200 to many US workers, and an additional $1.5 trillion for the US stock market. Alaska has been paying residents an oil dividend since the 1980’s – its a little amount at around $2,000 per anum, but it is a universal payment. Finland has tried a small experiment in UBI, and some US states attempted to implement a reverse tax scheme which amounts to give cash payments to people on low incomes. There was no evidence that any of these experiments resulted in people becoming lazier because they were receiving “free money.” I would have been worried about a scheme like this, causing massive inflation, but the financial crisis of 2008 saw central banks all around the world engaging in “quantitive easing,” which was, in effect, flooding the financial (banking) system with cash. It seems now that it is necessary to flood “main street” with money, and it may be a necessity going forward.
The world of work has also changed. In the past, offices have switched from cubicle to open plan depending on the fashion of the day, but then the internet allowed some workers to work remotely. At first, this was only a possibility for people in senior-level roles, but it soon became more available to middle management. However, people who had established careers in the office culture often were suspicious that people working from home were skiving off their duties. Salespeople often argued that they needed the face to face interaction to be effective. While there was an unspoken reluctance to non-management reports work from home- again due to the suspicion of skiving off and laziness. The current crisis has necessitated providing a platform for many new workers to experience the “working from home” phenononum. It will be interesting to see productivity reports and performance reviews when things get back to some sort of normality.
Of course, there are always jobs that need personal interaction. Jobs such as teaching, right? Everyone has an opinion about how students should be taught, but their expertise seems to come from the fact that they have attended school. Most people have at least one teacher that was a really positive influence, and many people have had several inspiring teachers. Yet online education has so much potential. Imagine having lessons from the most interesting and best teachers in each subject. Imagine using the most up to date technology to conduct experiments or to virtually tour museums or historical sites, or having the ability to explore all the things that interest you. The possibilities seem endless and yet have been remarkably underutilized, especially at high-school level. Despite watching many online videos of parents- struggling to try to help their own kids with tasks, praising teachers for their skills, and realizing that actually their kid doesn’t take instruction well – I am sure that, while people may be glad when schools return, they will also be more aware of the possibilities of online education. Plus, out of this experience, more and better educational technologies will emerge.
Shopping online is not new; otherwise, Amazon would not be the massive company that it is today. However, since the pandemic, people have been buying a lot of different stuff online- has anyone tried ordering any home gym equipment recently? Forget picking out your own vegetables at the grocery store or the farmers market, and why would you go to a gym when you can have whatever fitness class that you want in your own home? Now order your spin bike on Amazon and download your app from the Appstore, and by the time you have finished your first online spin class, your vegetables, pasta, and whatever else you could wish for will be delivered to your door.
The changes I have suggested were already happening; for some readers, I am behind the curve. However, the longer this crisis lasts, the faster that these changes will become our “new normal”- and the more our kids will look at us like we are Neandertals when we hug family or friends that we haven’t seen in a while or when you try to tell them the importance of a good solid handshake.