What will we take with us into a post-COVID world?
Earlier seismic human shifts — the Agricultural Revolution or the Industrial Revolution — occurred over relatively long stretches of time. Now the pandemic is accelerating our already rapid digital revolution, crashing us into a future that is simultaneously as radical and mundane as our endless meetings on Zoom.
Within the earliest days of COVID-19, entire structures of work, education and leisure shifted from the physical world to its virtual incarnation. We moved millions of students onto digital learning platforms and migrated in-person interactions, from religious services to fitness classes, online.
Temporary changes are becoming permanent. Some grocery clerks, bus drivers, meatpackers, obstetricians may command a higher wage for their labors going forward. Delivery drones, driverless cars and automated checkout kiosks are being accelerated and will automate more jobs away. And the entire infrastructure built to support a work-from-the-office environment will become gradually obsolete. Things like subways and coffee shops, which presume an active urban work force, will decline. Highways could become less crowded. And rural areas — like tiny Winhall, Vermont, whose summer 2020 population rose from 769 to more than 10,000 — likely will see an upsurge in home sales.
Another comes from how the pandemic has rejiggered our intimate lives. Nine months ago, most could not have imagined talking to a therapist over Zoom, much less attending a Zoom funeral. Most of us didn’t even know what Zoom was. Now it has become the central utility of our days, the channel through which we teach our children, date and check in on our aging parents. It’s hard to imagine that we will ever go back — not because Zoom is wonderful. But because we will get used to slipping in and out of conversations at the click of a mouse, to attending meetings around the world without having to wait at the airport or pay for a flight. We will build friendships with people we’ve never met in real life. Which means that our very notion of “real” will morph as well.
Before COVID-19, real life was lived in the physical world. Now it’s all blurred. An entire class of kindergartners has school online. For them and those who follow, Zoom classes won’t be “Zoom classes.” They’ll just be school. As Zoom life becomes real life, physical interaction will be for special occasions, like a trip across the ocean once was for our grandparents.
Our daily lives have returned to patterns that existed long ago. Before the Industrial Revolution unleashed its radical tools, most people’s lives unfolded along relatively narrow arcs. They lived close to their extended families, usually in the same town as their parents and grandparents. They produced their own food, made their own clothes, and had few ways of demarcating “work” from “home.” Indeed, before the Industrial Revolution created the modern factory economy, everyone essentially worked from home. Now we are living more like our ancestors than like our former selves, merging the boundaries between home and work, and between our personal and professional lives.
It is too soon, of course, to know the precise contours of COVID’s long-term impact. What is increasingly evident, though, is that this disease will reshape us in ways that extend far beyond its deadly toll. The biggest change, is likely to stem from the nature of change itself. We have known for some time that technology is extending its reach across our lives. Social media, smartphones, nanobots, artificial intelligence — all have emerged in just the past 10 years, a tiny sliver of time. But until the pandemic came, individuals had some ability to pick and choose among the technologies they used. They could explore virtual realities or not; venture into an online classroom or stay firmly ensconced in the physical world. Now, COVID has abruptly yanked everyone into the future. We are all online now, and likely to stay there for a very long time.
This sudden shift is scary and isolating and exhilarating, all at the same time. As a species we are surprisingly adaptive, reconfiguring our norms and social structures to accord with our particular moment in time. We will be different after COVID-19 finally leaves. But we will get used to this new normal with amazing speed, and then quickly forget that it was just one little virus that brought our future into being.
Debora Spar is a professor at Harvard Business School and the former president of Barnard College and Lincoln Center. She is the author of “Work Mate Marry Love.” She wrote this for Zócalo Public Square.