Our world has changed forever, and we may not even realize the full extent of that transformation for a while. When news broke about a new virus from China early in 2020, it felt so far away from the rest of the world. Three short months after, the entire world had ground to a complete halt. Never in recent history, and perhaps in human history, has a single incident brought about a total global shutdown. The ramifications of this world-changing incident will be felt for generations to come. Economies have begun to shrink, global travel has come to a near standstill, sporting and social events have been cancelled, education has been upended, and just about any human endeavour that ran on a schedule is now being redesigned. Whenever this is over, we will not return to our old normal; we will be forced to embrace a new normal.
For one, our modes of social interaction will take on new shapes – handshakes will be seriously evaluated; face masks will no longer be considered optional fashionable items; we will douse our hands with copious amounts of hand sanitizer with no prompts; public transportation and its in-built design for the congregation of bodies will give us the heebie-jeebies; and we will become overly conscious of the potential transmission of viruses in enclosed spaces. On the plus side, we would have finally learned how to wash our hands properly – at least 20 seconds, with lots of lather, in between spaces, and unfortunately with the tap running the entire time.
At a more macro level, industries are being reshaped, employment patterns are being redesigned, and the nexus between the home and the office has just become stronger. When we settle into our new normal, how many more companies will consider working from home the norm, or at least acceptable? How many more people will have at least one side gig? How many more families will revert to some form of home schooling? Will companies revert to hiring short-term staff to avoid being locked in employment contracts? Are we all going to become dispensable employees?
Globally, our patterns of interaction will change. News from Italy or Spain will no longer be considered foreign; developments in China will both excite and terrify us; we will know as much about the leadership of New Zealand as we do about the absence thereof in Brazil. Our opinions about global politics will be strengthened, not only because of the abdication of responsibility by the world’s largest superpower, but because it will be easier to draw comparisons and contrasts with the actions of other governments and individuals. We will know more about the inherent weaknesses of international multilateral organizations, and the fragility of global support for their leaders, particularly when they come from under-represented nations; we will know not to always rely on funding from America.
In our new normal, the threads of our social fabric will be worn thin, and the gaps in society which were once blurred will become glaring. We will pay attention to the homeless and the hungry; we will appreciate the kindergarten teachers, the domestic helps, and underpaid nurses. We will realize that curfews and lockdowns might be favourable to the wealthy, but extremely pernicious to those whose livelihoods come from the streets. We will realize that not all of us have the capacity to stock up on food for more than a day; not all of us have access to credit, and not all of us have a rainy day fund. We will realize that social distancing counts for little when families of five live in a single bedroom apartment, and when slum living warrants shared pit latrines. In our new normal, we will realize that we are all in this together; that everyone is a potential carrier of the next virus.
In the world of education, will online learning become more of an option than it was prior? Will we actually spend more time on Zoom than we spend on in-person group activities? Will experiential learning take on new dimensions when physical proximity creates jitters? The challenges and opportunities for higher education are extensive – will our new normal redefine employment patterns for academics? Will there be more tenured professors or less? Will there be funds for international scholarships? Will the burden of student loans cause some to finally give up on education altogether? Are we going to finally question the need for a 3-year or 4-year undergraduate degree? Will there be internships for undergraduates and recent graduates, or will companies favour low-cost interns and attempt to extend those contracts for as long as possible?
The questions are endless, and every sector of our global economy will have to pursue some answers. What is clear is that things will not simply return to normal. A global shakeup of this nature will shift us further away from shore and into the high seas, and only those who have learned to swim will survive. Adaptable companies are developing new lines of business to respond to these shifts – no company will survive too long by simply cutting expenditure – many companies will need to pivot their strategies to stay ahead of the curve. Adaptable individuals are rapidly upskilling themselves to attempt indispensability – resourcefulness and multi-varied skillsets will be needed in our new normal. But will there be a change in politics? We need to be prepared for an assault on some civil liberties as autocrats strengthen their hands. We need to know that surveillance will increase and privacy will be severely threatened. When the next round of elections come around, we need to look deep within ourselves and ask: “Who will I want to lead me through the next crisis? A bombastic talker or a measured pragmatist?”
We have so much to think about, but time is short. The new normal is here.