Culture & Society

A Perfect (Tweet)storm: Conjectures on a Post-COVID World

Robert Graboyes foresees fewer zombies, more federalism, and lots of longer hair

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British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, as the story goes, was asked what would determine the course of his government’s actions. His response? “Events, dear boy. Events.”

Whether or not Macmillan actually said those words is disputed. What is not in dispute is that COVID-19 has made 2020 the Year of Events. The world that existed in late 2019 is gone and shall not pass this way again.

“Look for the silver lining, whene’er a cloud appears in the sky,” begins a celebrated track by singer/trumpeter Chet Baker, much of whose life was shrouded in dark clouds. For some of us—the lucky ones—the plague’s silver lining is a chance to slow down and think, to appreciate the gifts we have and to ponder where we go from here.

It’s my great fortune that someone pays me to think about the future. Just last week, I assembled a list of 32 conjectures about the post-COVID world. Here, I’ll share a few of them, touch on the rest, and provide some context as to what inspired them. The complete list can be found on Twitter here.

Medical personnel are the heroes in this crisis, as everyone knows. But so are the people who brave the virus to bring us food and repair our homes. This prompted one of my 32 bets:

RISE OF VOCATIONS/ Aside from healthcare professionals, the heroes of COVID—and those still earning money—are farmers, truckers, grocers, repairmen, etc. #PostCOVID, many young will turn to these professions in lieu of college.

A related bet has to do with how others will use their college years:

FEWER ELOI/ Many college students’ families will have known bankruptcy, unemployment, privation, and death. #PostCOVID, expect them to abandon frivolous, PC majors for practical, career-oriented studies.

“Safe spaces” on college campuses—places where you can escape the troubles and even minor irritations of the world—will also experience a well-deserved demise. Like the revelers in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” students will now understand that no space is safe. You deal with the world you have, not the world you want.

Daily life in my neighborhood today is calm in a “Twilight Zone” sort of way. All motion seems to have slowed down by maybe 10-15 percent—just a little slower, but enough to notice. People no longer scurry. They saunter, amble, stroll, mosey, and meander. Neighbors we’ve never met before smile, wave, and ask how our day is going. They meticulously weed gardens and paint fences. When we meet the occasional cars, the drivers smile and wave us on. They’re clearly in no hurry. And so my next bet:

MAYBERRY RETURNS/ Where I live, people are socially distancing but chatting with more neighbors than ever before—a pleasant side-effect of a harrowing time. #PostCOVID, this renewed sense of community will continue and grow—accompanied by a resurgence of moseying.

In the middle of the last century, the Depression and a world war produced a remarkable generation—self-sacrificing, steely, communal, and explosively creative. On our daily walks, Alanna (my wife and world-class quarantine companion) and I see the green shoots of another such generation in the neighborhood children. Eight-year-olds keep a sharp eye out for pedestrians—and particularly for hoary-locked Boomers like us. They take great pains to step a safe distance from our path and offer good wishes as we pass. I’m betting the long months alone with family will influence where they live 15 to 20 years from now:

FAMILY OVER MOBILITY/ For decades, Americans have moved vast distances for dream jobs and new scenery; visiting home was easy. COVID has painfully isolated millions from their families. #PostCOVID, more will reject the thrill of the globe and live closer to family.

Some of my other conjectures involve a diminished appeal of urban areas, more distance learning, more homeschooling, less public transport, fewer teeny-tiny urban houses, and revulsion with reusable tote bags.

The World War II generation had the steely stoicism mentioned above, but those experiences also left them with a fragile, wounded side. My parents lived a comfortable life from V-J Day till they died, but they were never confident that the good times of the late 20th century and early 21st would outlast them. The current experience will likely forge a better young generation than we over-confident, self-possessed Boomers ever were. But the experience will leave scars. If the death toll and economic devastation are great enough, I’m betting they’ll shy away from horror-as-entertainment:

FEWER ZOMBIES/ 1910s’ amusement parks showcased disaster spectacles—fires, floods, battles. After WWI and Spanish flu, no one wanted to pay for fear. #PostCOVID, zombie & contagion films will be bitter reminders & more pastoral offerings will be in vogue.

What entertainment we seek will likely shift toward the home and away from stadiums and theaters, too.

Most of my waking hours these days are spent facing a computer screen filled with my own words or with the faces of colleagues. One sure bet has been suggested by numerous other futurists:

TELECOMMUTING/ I’ve never written so much or had so many good meetings as during the COVID quarantine. Telecommuting means less time wasted on the road, chatting by the coffee machine, heading out for lunch, paying for floor space. #PostCOVID, lots more will telecommute.

My bets also anticipate upticks in videoconferencing, video calling, home grocery delivery, staggered work hours, gig labor, and online religious communities. And as I see my own face on those videoconferences, I came to this realization:

LONGER (& WHITER) HAIR/ Many of us will emerge from extended quarantine with longer hair than we’ve had since the 1970s and whiter hair than we’ve ever had. Some of us will like what we see. Expect longer hair, less dye #PostCOVID.

I’m a health economist whose work focuses on the questions, “How can we make healthcare as innovative in the next 30 years as information technology was in the past 30 years?” and “How do we provide better healthcare for more people at a lower cost, year after year?” As state and federal officials jettison age-old laws and regulations in the battle against COVID-19, I’ve seen more innovation in 25 days than in the previous 25 years. So my first conjecture on healthcare is this:

FEWER HEALTH REGS/ COVID has sparked a realization that government micromanagement of healthcare is lethal. Lawmakers are jettisoning regulations with astonishing speed, trying to unparalyze delivery systems. #PostCOVID, patients and providers will face fewer limits on care.

Some of the other bets on my list of 32 involve telemedicine, germophobia, the changing focus of healthcare reform, and acceptance of high-tech medicine.

International affairs will likely change for good, as I suggest here:

EUROPEAN DISUNION/ 19thC EU precursors (Latin & Scandinavian Monetary Unions) broke up after members exploited one another during crisis. Richer EU countries have largely abandoned Italy & Spain during COVID. #PostCOVID, more countries will follow the UK in exiting.

There will likely be diminished support for unfettered free trade and global supply chains. And finally, I’m betting our relationship with our governments will change for the long-run:

MORE FEDERALISM/ States are painfully learning that they, not distant federal officials, are best situated to plan for disasters & manage responses. #PostCOVID, states will distrust federal largesse and competence and take greater control of their own affairs.

I expect fewer public boondoggles and less regulation of small business—necessities as we climb out of the current economic disaster.

Again, you can check out my entire list here on Twitter.

Stay healthy.

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