Last week, I began to explore what life will be like when the coronavirus lockdown finally ends.
Initially, people will crave a return to in-person social gatherings and some sense of normalcy. Still, when the stay-at-home orders and mandatory business closings are lifted, the reopening of society will proceed cautiously. Guided by a mix of joy and fear, some people will jump right back into old routines while others will take it more slowly. Many, without consciously thinking about it, will never again attend events with huge crowds or ride a crowded subway.
Some businesses will open their doors and offices faster than others. Sadly, many will never reopen. Returning workers will learn new routines and procedures to ensure a safe and healthy work environment, especially for businesses that deal directly with consumers.
Politicians will debate what sort of international trade and travel restrictions might be appropriate going forward. What kind of security can protect against an invisible virus? Should the new restrictions apply only to China? Or to all nations? It will soon become clear that the pandemic has reset discussions on just about every political issue.
Still, it won’t be long before a new normal sets in. Our culture and lifestyle adapt so quickly to new realities that we soon forget what came before. If you doubt that’s true, consider the phrase social distancing. A month or so ago, hardly anybody had heard of it. Now it’s a part of daily conversation.
The realities of social distancing have forced us to learn new ways of working, playing and building community together. Millions of older Americans have joined virtual gatherings for the first time. Untold numbers of parents are — for the first time — providing a form of home-schooling. Churches are finding ways to serve their flock without getting together in person on Sunday mornings. The list could go on and on.
These new routines will never replace in-person gatherings — humans need such contact for their physical and mental well-being. But, when the crisis is over, the new approaches will not wither away or disappear. Americans will not unlearn what they are learning today. Instead, they will use what they have learned in ways that will alter the frequency and purpose of our face-to-face encounters with others.
A friend of mine works with a large team that has been forced to telecommute during the current crisis. It’s going so well that he’s now thinking of working from Florida for a month next winter. Following the experience of the past month, he figures his boss will have no reason to object. My friend values the regular, in-person interactions with his co-workers and will have plenty of it for most of the year. But the month in Florida will also give him more time with family and friends in a pleasant setting.
Millions of Americans will do the same and seamlessly adopt what they’ve learned during the lockdown to make changes in their daily life. After a while, it won’t seem different at all. It will just be a new normal.
Though the novelty of our new routines will quickly wear off, the impact of those changes will bring about massive social disruption. To take just one example, when my friend and his team telecommute more regularly, their company will need less office space. That seemingly minor change will ripple through the economies of major cities.
Beneath the surface, all of these changes are being driven by one of the most significant cultural changes in American history. Beginning in the 1970s, the digital revolution kicked off what I call the Great Turnaround:
• For two centuries leading up to the 1970s, the trend was for everything in America to get bigger, more centralized and more homogenized.
• After the ’70s, however, cultural trends moved in the opposite direction with everything becoming more niche-oriented, decentralized and personalized.
It is hard to overstate the significance of this cultural turnaround. “The devices and connectivity so essential to modern life put unprecedented p ower in the hands of every individual,” according to Harvard’s Nicco Mele. This is “a radical redistribution of power that our traditional institutions don’t and perhaps can’t understand.” As if that wasn’t enough, he adds, “Radical connectivity is toxic to traditional power structures.”
This decentralizing force has been transforming our society for decades. Many institutions and industries have already adapted or disappeared. Following the pandemic, the scale and pace of change will increase dramatically.
In the coming weeks, I’ll look at how our decentralizing culture is poised to bring about massive changes to our health care, education and political systems.
While transitions are always unsettling, we have reason to be optimistic about the future. That’s because this new era has put “unprecedented power in the hands of every individual.” That’s a good thing!
Taking power away from the few and giving it to the many is right in line with our nation’s founding ideals. From a pragmatic viewpoint, it means more people will have a greater ability to work together and create a better world.
Scott Rasmussen is an American political analyst and digital media entrepreneur. He is the author of “The Sun is Still Rising: Politics Has Failed But America Will Not.”