It’s impossible to pick up a magazine or log into a blog or website without coming across an article predicting how dramatically the Coronavirus pandemic will change the world.
As Steven Pearlstein recently wrote in the Washington Post, self-appointed soothsayers are predicting the demise of globalization, the triumph of large enterprises over small business, and dramatic lifestyle changes brought about by fear of dangerous microbes:
everything from diminished travel, as people “think twice about boarding an airplane, checking into a hotel, attending a concert or taking their kids to Disney World” to the emptying out of expensive cities, since so many of us–and our employers– have discovered that we can work just as well from home.
Time to take a deep breath.
I certainly don’t have a crystal ball–nor do I claim any particular expertise in “futurism,” but these predictions strike me as fanciful at best and absurd at worst. Just look at how desperately people are returning to their previous behaviors, even in the face of warnings that it is dangerously early for such return. Humans are creatures of habit.
We are dependent upon those international supply chains. Our families are scattered around the globe, and we still want to visit them. Often, on airplanes. Etc. Although there is likely to be movement toward remote work, that movement has been underway for quite some time, and it is necessarily limited–not just because many jobs require our physical presence, but because so many of us see real value in face-to-face interactions with our coworkers.
All of this is not to say that change is not underway. It is–and much of the social unrest we are seeing is attributable to it. The pandemic may accelerate some part of the broader social changes that were occurring when it hit–or it may retard some–but the real shifts have been underway for years, fostered by improved transportation and communication technologies and demographics.
I suspect that changes in the wake of the video of George Floyd’s murder by a police officer will turn out to be far more consequential than those triggered by the pandemic.
Last year, Gallup documented major social changes that have occurred “since Woodstock”: religious attachment has waned, support for marijuana legalization has grown, interracial marriage–and its acceptance– has increased, a majority of Americans now support reproductive rights, voters are far more willing to elect women or people of color, family sizes have shrunk, and given the option, most women now prefer to enter the workforce to staying home. And of course– to belabor the obvious–attitudes about premarital sex and LGBTQ citizens have dramatically changed.
There is a (hotly disputed) academic theory that posits cultural “swings” every forty or fifty years. Whatever the accuracy of that theory, anyone even slightly conversant with social history can recognize how the disruptions of one era lay a foundation for those of the next, and how technological innovations affect those changes (usually, in unanticipated ways).
My absolutely non-crystal-ball conclusion is that humans are approaching one of our inevitable turning points. (This one is made far more dangerous by climate change, and by the sheer number of humans on our planet.) One aspect of our new reality is already visible: thanks to demographic change and significantly increased urbanization, it has become far more difficult for people to live in geographic–as opposed to ideological–bubbles, far more difficult for most folks to ignore the reality of human diversity and the complexities of our daily social interactions.
At times like these, when social transformation seems overwhelming, people everywhere fall into two broad (very broad) categories–those who accept the new realities and those who reject them. Those who adapt–or try to– and those who panic.
In the United States, the MAGA folks, the alt-right provocateurs, the fundamentalist preachers, the Fox-News audience members and their ilk are clinging to a world that no longer exists, insisting that we can bring back a time when everyone knew their place– and the straight white Christian guy’s place was on top.
The pandemic will impel some changes around the edges, but the real transformation will be produced by people who recognize the necessity of building a different, fairer world. I’m betting that there are enough of those people, that they outnumber and certainly out-think the reactionaries, and that the disorientation and unrest we are now experiencing will ultimately lead to a vastly improved social contract.
I sure hope I win that bet….