Virginia and I went on a Saturday night date (to the Mann Music Center to see Ballet X after a dinner out) for the first time in 16 months and then attended an outdoor church music event the next afternoon and it’s starting to feel like we’re increasingly out of the teeth of the pandemic. (I’ll worry about variants on another day.)
I am very, very curious what things are going to look like on the other side of this, if we ever truly get all the way to the other side (see variants), but for now I feel like alI I know is that there has been a Great Shift. I feel it as if we’re on a ship and some enormous load has moved in the hold. The deck isn’t quite level, but nobody has yet been down in the hold to see what happened. Will it re-settle and we’ll come back to level? Will it keep rolling and we’ll capsize? Or are we just gonna float, a little off-kilter and bobbing, till we all learn to walk on this tilted deck as if this is the way it’s always been? I’m an optimist, and yet. There is some anxiety here.
I’ve been trying to comprehend the Great Shift. It seems that the way people understood the world or behaved in it has changed. A year-plus of retreating into our homes and very limited social bubbles if you were privileged/lucky — or braving a deadly pandemic, if you weren’t — has provided some revelatory space. People have changed, I sense, but also that they don’t quite know how. I don’t either, but here are some lessons that, to me, people seem to have learned:
- The world can bend a lot when it has to. Things that were seemingly immutable (commutes, weddings, ballgames, live music, movie theaters, beers with the guys, book groups, dating, meeting other humans, monetary policy) either disappeared or were replaced by virtual doppelgängers that were more or less unsatisfactory. And those in-person things are coming back with a drip-drip-drippiness that’s much slower than the faucet-slammed-shut immediacy of March 2020.
- Or not. For a lot of people, the past year has created a distance that they welcome or prefer to the uncertainty of re-emerging. Either way, they’re satisfied with or resigned to the past year’s status quo.
- They have more say than they originally thought they had on some of these things and, this is important, that as they reconnect, they want things on their terms. Whether it’s no more supermarket trips or work commutes or going to church on Sunday mornings, if people don’t see value in their presence or attendance, they’ll insist on alternatives.
- The world is not unipolar. Hybrid might be 2021’s Word of the Year. This will be the year of yes/and, not either/or. Or maybe it will be the year of no/and, as in I won’t do that, but I would do this with some of that. One thing that I don’t think many businesses have reckoned with is that the past year was simple. Work went remote. Many employees haven’t seen an office in more than a year. As companies begin to navigate a world where people work at home AND in an office, it’s going to be a) complicated and b) expensive. You’re going to have to equip both workplaces or risk a productivity trough in one of them. Simply saying, if you don’t like it, come to the office, isn’t going to cut it.
- They can get away with no as an answer. Don’t like the conditions an employer places on a return to the office? Find a new job. Don’t like the idea of returning to work, period? Then don’t. Don’t like your partner? Well, people seem to have decided that can wait. People have embraced the ambiguities and figured out how to hold their breath. It might be a long time before some of them come up for air.
In short, people want what they want, it isn’t what they had before the pandemic, and they think they have the agency to make it happen, one way or another.
I expect this is going to manifest itself in the biggest mixed bag of a recovery we’ve seen in my lifetime. It’s going to lead to a tumultuous economic year, an explosion of cash being thrown around in pursuit of self-actualization and fulfillment of wishes and missions and delusions, and, sadly, an acceleration of some of the trends toward social isolation and bubble building. I think it’s going to be bad for political polarization, because as people rebuild their social graphs they are going to consider their choices through a partisan lens, which could exacerbate the kind of political sorting that has already become too much a factor in who hangs with whom. Emerging from this with political affiliation as a primary lens is one of the saddest fruits of the pandemic season. If a global pandemic, driven by a remorseless virus whose only affiliation is vulnerability isn’t enough to get us all pulling in one direction, I fear for the Commons. And the Commonwealth.
Also in the sad category, I think education is going to remain a mess for the next year, as unvaccinated kids will remain the biggest pool of viral potential for coronavirus variants. I expect schools, kids, parents and teachers will continue to be stressed and whipsawed by that reality all the way into 2022. The degree to which this is true will depend a lot of your zip code. Vaccinated zip codes will suffer less, those with a lot of vaccine holdouts more.
In short, there’s a lot of tonnage moving around in the hold. We could re-settle into a Better Way, a more seaworthy existence. There are promising signs that people realize it’s time to value sustainability. But it could flip us. I’m an optimist, but I’m also a little worried about slipping off this listing ship. Or that the ship we’re on is about to be tossed by Climate Change in a way that could make all this epidemiological and sociological hullaboo seem like small potatoes—think the lords and ladies of Westeros scrambling for power until, in the penultimate episodes, they notice the unsettling, quiet guy with the blue eyes riding an ice dragon at the head of a zombie army in Game of Thrones. But that’s for another day, and another post.
Above all, I’m curious. And curious how you think it’ll sort itself out.