The Post Pandemic World
Eminent futurologist Dr. Jagdish Sheth on how we will work, shop, relax, and more in the aftermath of the current coronavirus crisis.
Except for the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, the Covid-19 coronavirus will have the most significant long-term consequences on our lives at home, at the workplace, and everywhere in between. This is not so much because of the global scale of the pandemic as due to the mandatory global lockdowns and social distancing measures undertaken by most governments of the world to save lives.
Thanks to digital technology such as smart phones, high bandwidth networks, social media and unlimited number of innovative apps, the world will survive and even thrive—much better than it did after the 1918 Spanish flu and other pandemics. Unlike major hurricanes and tornados which leave devastating effects on our homes and lives, the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic will bring about long-term transformative changes in the way we work, shop, relax, educate, manage personal health, and maintain relationships with friends and family.
The abrupt shutdown of access to markets has resulted in a global recession, and is disrupting worldwide supply chains. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how we could survive today without the internet and online commerce. Workers don’t have to go to the workplace; work comes home to them. Similarly, consumers do not have to go to the supermarket; the supermarket comes home to them.
The only other major event which significantly disrupted the family structure was World War II. All men were sent abroad for four years to fight the war and women were given the responsibility to run factories which were all diverted towards manufacturing war related products. Prior to that, the vast majority of the women were homemakers with only high school education. Now suddenly they were factory workers, foremen, and managers. Women became both the homemakers and the breadwinners.
When the war was over, it brought about significant changes in the economy and society. Along with the baby boom came sharing of responsibilities by the husbands in cooking, cleaning, and childcare as women continued to work in factories and offices; embracing telephone and television as necessities rather than luxuries of life; and unleashing pent up demand for appliances such as refrigerators and dishwashers. Convenience mattered most.
Rather than eating all three meals at home, families began to eat out in quick service restaurants such as McDonald’s, KFC, and Pizza Hut. People watched news on television instead of relying only on the local daily newspapers. In many ways, the family structure as well as roles and responsibilities of running the family changed dramatically and permanently.
Fast forward today. More than 60 percent of women are in the workforce, and more than 70 percent of women with children are working. It has increasingly become a necessity for women to work. Consequently, what the family does not have today is time. With the internet and the social media, today the families are living like roommates. Eating dinner together is more like a chore. Soon after the meal, everyone goes in their own corner and either chats on social media, watches YouTube, or talks on the phone.
This roommate family is about to go through another transformation due to sustained stay-at-home mandates imposed to contain the coronavirus. Family members will have to learn how to share the space, and concede their privacy and independence at home.
Here are several long-term structural changes I see as a consequence of the coronavirus crisis.
Improvise, Improvise, Improvise: The Jugaad Way
Jugaad is an old Indian concept of improvisation under resource constraints. It means developing solutions that work by overcoming and/or bypassing constraints or rules imposed by social norms or by legal compliances. Jugaad also means seeking opportunity in adversity, doing more with less; thinking and acting flexibly, and following the heart.
I am simply amazed at the creativity and resilience of people during the coronavirus crisis: curbside Indian weddings with social distancing; Zoom memorial services for a family member or a friend who just passed away; and offering Easter services in Drive-In movie theaters and parking lots.
Jugaad is practiced by location centric retailers such as car dealers, flower shops, restaurants, beauty salons, entertainment programs, and medical services. Telemedicine by video conferencing is the new normal today and may become mainstream very soon. Just as World War II broke the social norms about the role of women in the family, coronavirus will liberate potential talent of people whether it is music, art, or events. Talent discovery will no longer be limited to talent scouts in sports and show business. Just as cable television created celebrity chefs through the popular food channels, social media (especially YouTube) will discover talent which will go viral.
Demand for non-essential products and services has been suppressed during the current epidemic. This includes leisure activities, entertainment, and other location-centric offerings. However, a much bigger demand will soon follow for high-ticket items such as automobiles, homes, appliances, and consumer electronics. In order to have safety net of cash reserves during the pandemic, a typical family has been postponing purchases of big-ticket items. This is similar to what happened soon after the World War II was over. Not only was there a baby boom, but there was also a buying boom, especially for television and telephone lines.
Wants Become Needs
As we embrace digital technology during the crisis for delivery of groceries at home or to keep in touch with friends and family by social media, this will generate demand for products and services which are considered luxuries today, but will soon become necessities. This is similar to the adoption of cell phones. Earlier we did not think we needed it, and now we cannot live without it. Video conferences and streaming services, for example, will become necessities just as television and microwaves became necessities in the fifties and sixties.
The market will come to the customer and we will enjoy the convenience of home deliveries. It will also result in more personalization of product and service offerings. Today, we have the databases, machine learning, and artificial intelligence to provide high degree of personalization of not only what you offer, but also how you offer it at a time and place convenient to the customer. Remote will become real because it will be more cost efficient to the suppliers and the consumers.
Artificial Becomes Real
Most activities will shift from physical to virtual. What was peripheral will become core and what is core today will become peripheral. This includes searching for information, doing transactions, and keeping up with friends and family. While online dating is here today, there will be chatbot girlfriends and people will fall in love with their chatbots. In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Parmy Olson describes several real world anecdotes of how individuals are interacting with chatbots and robots. According to the author, Microsoft’s Xiao Ice social chatbox has more than 660 million users in China today! In short, the artificial becomes real.
An Entrepreneurship Boom
Entrepreneurship is the real competitive advantage of a nation. Furthermore, it is universal. It does not recognize gender, age, literacy, or education. Some of the most successful entrepreneurs are college dropouts, and if they had been allowed, they would have been high school dropouts. And entrepreneurship is not limited to business. Successful musicians and artists are some of the best entrepreneurs. So is true of social entrepreneurs. The disruption caused by the coronavirus as well as access to affordable technology infrastructure such as cloud computing and web services, will encourage people to think of working for themselves from their homes, warehouse offices, and self-storage units. Some people will even have mobile offices in their cars and pickup trucks.
Three Major Macro Consequences
In addition to the impact on the family, the prolonged lockdown and social distancing will have three major macro consequences.
1. A New World Organization: World Pandemic Organization (WPO)
First, there will be global cooperation and establishment of separate international agencies similar to what happened after World War II, which led to the formation of the United Nations, the IMF, and the World Bank. The Covid-19 pandemic has brought world leaders together to share information as well as conduct experimental therapies, clinical trials, vaccine developments, and provide Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) to the healthcare workers. The initiatives arising from this global cooperation will be independent of WHO at the United Nations. For example, it may be an initiative under the G-20 group of nations. What we need is a World Pandemic Organization which not only contains and eliminates the viruses, but also coordinates both fiscal and monetary policies of the world to combat them.
2. Biological Breakthroughs
While the 20th century was all about physics and chemistry, the 21st century will be all about the biological sciences. The genome decoding of the DNA structure has opened up so many new possibilities of breakthrough research in health sciences. This is also facilitated by supercomputing and machine learning. Today, we can virtually clone anything including pearls, shrimp, and sheep. Biological sciences will be very useful for conservation and sustainability. Biological sciences will also drive next generation of computers.
The worldwide reduction of air pollution (and noise pollution) as a consequence of the lockdowns in most cities of the world is now quite obvious. This has conclusively established the fact that most environmental degradation today is man-made. Therefore, it is reversible, and the world can save millions of lives each year due to air pollution. We need to coordinate policy makers, business enterprises, and the public opinion to promote and mandate clean energy and environmental sustainability.
The post virus world will be more optimistic, entrepreneurial, and innovative. The age of the cartoon Jetson family is here.
Dr. Jagdish Sheth, Charles H. Kellstadt Professor of Business at Goizueta Business School, Emory University, is a globally renowned marketing guru who was recently bestowed the Padma Bhushan Award, one of India’s highest civilian awards.
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