Thursday, December 24, 2020

American Changes for 2021-2022 – I

A worthy topic is what our country will be like once this pandemic has greatly faded, which it will do over the next two years from some combination of deaths, people immune from vaccines, and people immune from previous infection.  There has been a steady stream of declarations.

The first, David Brooks’s “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake,” was actually pre-COVID, turning up in the March 2020 Atlantic.  Brooks has written books on cultural issues, and here made a 30-page case that our most common three-plus-member family arrangement, relatively new to our species, is not optimal.  A full review of this thoughtful work would take much more than a paragraph, but the main points he made were that extended families better withstand relationship breakups such as divorces, they socialize children more effectively and more representatively, lower-income people would suffer less with them, kinship would be strengthened, and in them loneliness is vastly less of a problem.  We have moved on economically from the Industrial Revolution, when the nuclear family became predominant, and it may be time to do that socially.

The same publication on April 15th featured Olga Khazan’s “How the Coronavirus Could Create a New Working Class.”  It was misnamed, as it was about a new movement, and focused on making a case for better treatment of low-paid, infection-susceptible employees instead of explaining why that might actually happen.  True, “in 2021, the American working class might seize their moment,” but since publication the impetus for that seems to have faded. 

Ravin Jesuthasan, Tracey Malcolm, and Susan Cantrell looked at employment itself in “How the Coronavirus Crisis is Redefining Jobs,” on April 22nd in the Harvard Business Review, suggesting “three ways to shift work, talent, and skills to where and when they are needed most, thereby building the organizational resilience and agility necessary to navigate uncertain times and rebound with strength when the economy recovers”:  they were “make work portable across the organization,” “accelerate automation,” and “share employees in cross-industry talent exchanges.”  All are good, especially with the second suggested as it at least ostensibly “can speed up response times and free agents from transactional tasks so that they can focus on responding with the empathy and emotional intelligence that customers need now more than ever,” and all have surely been practiced more as the pandemic has rolled on.

There’s merit in never saying never, and in forever avoiding the last title word in Derek Thompson’s April 27th The Atlantic “The Pandemic Will Change American Retail Forever.”  Thompson saw “the big acceleration” of trends, such as department stores and the malls they anchor going away, along with “the flattening of the American city” with small business closing, “the end of the golden age of restaurants” especially in the likes of New York where “thin margins require filling every square inch with paying customers,” and “the all-delivery economy” assuming that such utility would continue even when need for it has gone.  I like better his thought that open storefronts and resulting lower rents will let neighborhoods such as Greenwich Village become eccentric again – thirty dollars might never again pay the rent on Bleecker Street, but it might not take $3000 either. 

Uri Friedman’s May 1st The Atlantic “I Have Seen the Future – And It’s Not the Life We Knew” is now obsolete, as it did not consider the effect of vaccines and was written before Denmark and South Korea, which Friedman praised for beating the pandemic, had serious relapses.  This story displayed the dangers of assuming present trends will continue, which in 2020 have not.  David Brooks returned, in the June 25th New York Times, with “America is Facing 5 Epic Crises All at Once” – in addition to “losing the fight against Covid-19,” he named “a rapid education on the burdens African-Americans carry every day” about which “public opinion is shifting with astonishing speed,” a “political realignment” especially around what it means to be Republican, “a quasi-religion” which he named “social justice” “seeking control of America’s cultural institutions” with opinions actually “weapons” meaning “words can thus be a form of violence that has to be regulated,” and that “we could be on the verge of a prolonged economic depression.”  Brooks ended with “the pragmatic spirit of the New Deal is a more apt guide for the years ahead than the spirit of critical theory symbology.”  Well, now that we will soon have a normal president…

David Leonhardt’s July 10th New York Times “It’s 2022.  What Does Life Look Like?” didn’t even attempt to answer that question.  He pointed out the ways Americans went back on track after financial crises (still bought stocks), after Obama’s presidency (no “racial conciliation”), after September 11th (more and more airplane passengers), and after the Vietnam War (“extended foreign wars without a clear mission” became even longer and more common), and then offered only three vague and obvious projections.  Brent Schrotenboer got more specific in the September 22nd USA Today’s “What could our lives be like in 2025?  Futurists think Americans may eat, fly and go to school differently post-COVID.”  He had “restaurant reinvention will follow decay” with emphasis on “smaller, more intimate experiences” and places being “more fluid in their offerings,” “’Frontier Spirit United’ will sort of be a thing” with
fewer brands in general,” “your reality will come by remote control” as organizations continue such practices after pandemic’s end, “air and gold will be sensible investments” with the former pushing demand for purification systems, and, continuing what Thompson wrote, “malls will be for Amazon, golf, pets and kitchens.”  All reasonable.

Finally and most recently, Farhad Manjoo threw a damper on forecasts of a great urban exodus, with “Why Should We Ever Return to Living and Working So Close Together?” in the December 22nd New York Times.  He answered that by saying that cities were “indispensable as engines of economic growth, catalysts of technological and cultural innovation,” as well as being “one of the most environmentally sustainable ways we know of for housing lots of people.”  Manjoo called the coronavirus crisis a chance for change, that it “does not have to kill cities – just our old idea of what cities were, how they worked, and who they were for,” and that “cities created the future” so “now we must secure theirs.”   

On New Year’s Day, what I think will happen and not happen.

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