The last year has been miserable. We got to understand how vulnerable, divided and virtual we have become. The longer the pandemic ran unchecked, the harder it became to enjoy a commute-free, family-packed existence. The future of work was no longer a cliche. It happened.
We got to taste a new paradigm of fear, family, friendship and love. We even got to miss the office banter. Now that the worse of Covid seems to be behind us, we get one last chance to reconsider our next steps before we stumble back to business as usual.
Had we been stuck on Mars the last 18 months and just returned to earth, we would discover a very different world to the one we left. Streets, people and workplaces would feel muted and introverted. Friends more serious. A tinge of fear floating lightly in the spring air. Countries once bold and confident seemingly less so. People either relieved to still have a job or terrified about how the future looks without one.
Students have been sacrificed. In the Anglo-Saxon world they’ve been left clutching massive lifetime debts with nothing but a below par education to show for it. Guinea pigs for a virtual education that's clearly a work in progress. And as if this was not enough, career opportunities are somewhat anemic. No government should be forgiven for this.
There is a collective realisation about things that will no longer be taken for granted. High on the list is paid work, health, family, exercise, reading, games, office relationships, culture and friends. Local community is no longer something for the semi-retired.
Hand washing has become a new national past time, while face coverings have gone from political pariah to hot new fashion item in the blink of a lockdown. We remain weary of packed places and indoor spaces.
Politicians have become far too visible - exposing competence and incompetence in equal measure. We have all become armchair pundits. In fact we seem to have become armchair experts-at-everything. We've never spent so much observational time sitting in comfort!
Scientists and health experts have been in the spotlight - like they never imagined. They are the new age soothsayer. Forget celebrity reality shows, the networks have cottoned onto the power of the medical pundit. At least they’ve taught us everything we need to know for when the next pandemic hits.
Travel and holidays abroad are a distant memory from a past world. The arts have been relegated to the living room and endless nights out with Netflix. The buzz of a packed train ride is about as appealing as a night out with Jair Bolsonaro. Conversation is podcast.
People are divided about Zoom. Some think it will transform the planet into an instant home working paradise while others wish we could just get back to phone calls in track pants without having to get the makeup out. The beauty of the simple, video-free call a retro feature we already yearn. After all, what happened to working from the beach without anyone knowing?
People are culturally divided. ‘Culture’ fires beliefs and behaviour more than before. It might even have replaced ‘economics’ as the key issue at the ballot box - unless, of course, you’re jobless or below the poverty line. Health, nationalism, immigration, climate change and equality seem more likely to direct us than possible changes to the tax code. Democracy is struggling against the will of China and Russia. Yet green parties are surging.
Families are closer and more united. Although grandparents might, at times, feel a little resentful and disconnected. Some left believing that their offspring could have done more to support them through the pandemic. They have, though, learned to do video calls.
Everyone is cautious. Everyone, except Elon Musk. We look like a society on the back foot - hesitant, masked, holding back. We continue to live in fear of losing a loved one, losing our job, or catching Covid. Virus mutations hang over us like a toxic cloud.
And yet, this might be exactly the time to look at things anew and muster the strength to do things differently. To refuse to go backwards. To step out into the altered universe and make a fresh kind of difference.
There are many new paths to follow - new industries, new technologies, new causes, new ways of life, new working patterns, new connections - and a virtual world that has broken down barriers and borders, even while the physical world tries to build them up.
We used to have to travel to visit customers, supporters or potential employers - today we can do it on the virtual doorstep. That changes the game. Hello to virtual fundraising, virtual sales, virtual campaigning and virtual meetings.
The digitalization of everything has begun, but it still has a way to run. A future best suited to the young and digitally fleet of foot. And digitalization also leads to bifurcation and fragmentation - which could lead to yet more opportunities.
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After a marathon of a year, we need to find the strength to say good bye to the old world. We’ve gone through a seismic, once in a generation shift. If we can lift our heads and drop our shoulders, we will see that there are new opportunities awaiting. We just need to shed some old ways, burn a couple of bridges and learn new tricks. But surely, it will be worth it. After all, if we're honest, there’s no going back!
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