There is much speculation about how society will change following the ultimate resolution of the COVID-19 crisis. From journalists to the Twitterati, nearly all are speculating about what industries, organizations and activities will benefit / suffer when we return to normal.
Call me a skeptic, but I am not convinced that is how humans actually change their behavior. Of course, there are many whose lives are being tragically upended by the suffering caused by this disease – whether their own health or that of loved ones. Perhaps more broadly is the economic suffering being inflected in the short-term.
But for the vast majority of people, this crisis will lead to an extreme desire for a return to normalcy. Atul Gawande in his Being Mortal highlighted the reason for this in the work of Stanford psychologist Laura Carstensen. Carstensen’s key hypothesis is that “how we seek to spend our time may depend on how much time we perceive ourselves to have” also known as “socioemotional selectivity theory.” When our time horizon [i.e. proximity to death] shortens, the choices we make and things we prioritize change dramatically. Conversely, when time horizon extends, those choices return to prior priorities.
Right now, the uncertainty of the pandemic combined with the effects of social distancing has dramatically shortened our time horizon. One example of this – on a Zoom call with friends recently, we were all discussing how much more appreciative of nature we are in current circumstances. We have and are willing to take the time to savor the simple pleasures of a single flower bloom or the birds nesting around our homes.
But just as quickly as our time horizon shifted, it will shift back. Slowly life will return to normal. If I had to guess, science will first discover some sort of therapeutic treatment that reduces the severity of COVID-19 and helps prevent serious illness in all but the most at-risk populations. That will be followed later by a vaccine.
While there may be flare-ups of the virus here and there, like we have seen in Hong Kong and other places, over time, the virus will fade from memory. The so-called “rumors of war” will be just that, and then ultimately there won’t be even those remaining.
So what will change?
All this is not to say change won’t happen after the virus – it just not in the place where we think. Instead, I would argue that this virus is hopefully the final nail in the coffin in this era of human history and how we govern and manage society.
To risk vastly over-simplifying the course of history, the story of the last several hundred years has been that major crises mark the end of eras of history and accepted ways of human functioning. I am indebted to Neil Howe’s The Fourth Turning for shaping much of my thinking on this.
So for example, the Civil War marked the end of agrarian society as the dominant economic model in the United States. The structure and functioning of agricultural markets in the United States were contingent upon the use of enslaved peoples to provide the needed labor to deliver the product. While there were and are moral and religious grounds as to why the practice of slavery needed to end, keep in mind the Civil War was co-incident with creeping mechanization of the industrial revolution.
So while the Civil War helped accelerate much needed societal changes, change was already in the air. After the war, society began to re-evaluate how it was constructed and governed.
Similarly, World War II marked the end of the first wave of the industrial revolution. Never before was death able to be delivered so efficiently and so broadly. And after the war’s conclusion, the world collectively began to recognize the needed for cooperative governance in its affairs in light of such devastation. And so we saw the establishment of the cross jurisdictional entities like the UN, NATO, etc.
Post war, marked the second and ultimate wave of the industrial era. Economies of scale and new technology enabled an unprecedented expansion in wealth and the standard of living. These technologies by the ’80s and into the ’90s began to sow the end of this era with the development of information technology. IT has been universally acclaimed as ushering in the next wave of human history.
Yet for the last almost 20 years we have been in a period of inter-regnum between the old world and the new world to come. This period has seen numerous on-going crises that have revealed to us the fragility of existing human structures in addressing the coming world.
Consider, how 9/11 in the United States revealed significant failings in the country’s intelligence apparatus and its ability to provide for the defense of its people. While various organizations had the pieces of the puzzle, the distributed nature of the enemy and the attack made it ultimately impossible for lumbering, command and control bureaucracies (and their accompanying organizational politics) to prevent the attack.
Since then, we have seen a rolling series of stresses revealing the fragility of post-WWII structures. We saw the Global Financial Crisis which was like a terminal heart attack for the banking system globally – the vital circulatory system for modern economies.
We have seen Brexit – with the United Kingdom choosing to leave the European Union. Even the United Kingdom is at risk of further fraction if/when Scotland becomes independent. The EU itself has certainly been under-strain with the poor fiscal policies of Greece, Italy and others leading to a many year period of austerity and tension between the constituent nations.
The rise of fracking and the emergence of the United States as both a major oil producer (and exporter!) is leading to unprecedented fragmentation of global energy markets. Let’s not forget that simultaneous with COVID-19 is a last ditch effort by OPEC to set global energy policy.
Narrowing the lens back to the United States, I would propose that both the Obama and Trump presidencies have had similar focuses – despite vastly different tactics. Obama and his tenure drew attention to the issues of the urban poor minorities and his seminal healthcare legislation was an attempt to address a system failure for certain citizens.
8 years later and Trump is elected ostensibly to address the second major economic failure – the wholesale evisceration of low income white communities from the movement of manufacturing overseas (further marking the end of the industrial era as we know it). These predominately rural communities suffered from social despair and its attending horsemen of opioid abuse, suicide, etc. Trump’s campaign promises to address trade policy and the ensuing trade-war with China were an attempt to right these failings.
Now, we enter into the COVID-19. There are many lessons this horrific virus has and will continue to teach. First, is how globally connected we all are. Second is how our public health infrastructure, like 9/11, was not prepared to address the speed and severity of the crisis. No one likes to be found wanting, but globally this crisis has again revealed where the ordering of our societal infrastructure is not equipped for the world in which we now live.
The American experiment is unique in its attempts to bring a diverse citizenry together, as the Constitution notes, to”establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” How to achieve these ends evolves through time. While some countries are using the present crisis to expand autocratic and dictatorial control, as Americans, we must face the fact that the task of the next 10-20 years is to rearchitect how our society functions in light of the weakness that have and are being revealed.
David is the Founder and CEO of Family Capital Strategy, a strategy consultancy for family offices and family businesses based in Nashville, TN. We help families stay invested together through the design of the family office and the thoughtful development of the family’s investment program. We provide objective, conflict free advice in a strategic, customized and multi-generational manner.