What New Normal?
There are certain phrases being bandied about. ‘post-Covid’, ‘new normal’ and ‘next normal’ come to mind. I do not think they are useful terms, but I do understand that human nature craves a return to what it is familiar with, even if it must settle for a variant.
A different normal?
New normal was a term coined to reflect life post the global financial crisis. From my perspective, the management consulting firm, McKinsey, popularised the term in the business community. More recently, McKinsey was quick to see the seismic changes that covid-19 would unleash on the planet and coined the term next normal. I suspect this was in part to suggest that to think in terms of new normal was simply passé and in part that it saw a step change in magnitude from the last ‘normal’ transformation.
The next normal has yet to gain traction in the business world. However the new normal has entered the vocabulary of the mainstream media and thus its readers.
What about the previous normal?
I don’t know who created post-Covid, but certainly governments find it a useful phrase to maintain citizen spirits by its implication that there is light at the end of the tunnel. The recent relaxation of the arguably Draconian measure of operating society as an open prison suggests that normality is just around the corner. This isn’t the case. So perhaps to maintain this illusion, lockdowns are becoming more nuanced with cities and towns being the unit of containment.
This is not an attack on my government or any government for that matter.
The nature of public sector leadership is such that the duration of tenure is typically shorter than the time needed to become competent in the domain over which authority is conferred.
This is a systemic problem. Governments are not what you might call learning organisations and so each generation in effect starts from scratch. Policy makers in general have yet to truly embrace an evidence-based approach and thus the lessons of history are never learnt. This is not the first pandemic.
The issue of any return to normality is much deeper than just the pre-Covid, during and post-Covid timeline. A strategic management framework called Pestle highlights that an environmental event such as covid-19 is not the only force shaping our future. It stands for:
Because of our own biases, we tend to see the world through perhaps one or two of these lenses. Climate change is another environmental force. The jostling for superpower supremacy similarly has a bearing on all of us. I have been shouting on the beach for some time in respect of the technological tsunami coming our way. Like many others, I didn’t see covid-19 coming.
Goodbye synthetic certainty
To a large extent, this is another day at the office for Gen Zs. They have entered a world where chaos is normal and where there is no correlation between working hard and enjoying the spoils of their labour. Older generations, going back 300 years, have enjoyed what I refer to as ‘synthetic certainty’. The industrial era cultivated this as it minimised the investment risk for capitalists and created the conditions for economic growth from which many of us benefitted.
There was a price to pay with the associated economic model. Citizens had to do mindless and dehumanising factory work. But it was a small price to pay for acquiring discretionary income. Over time, the factories became furnished, but it was still largely ‘cog’ work. Industrial era concepts emerged such as weekend, career, retirement and more latterly work-life balance.
Bizarrely, many of us are craving a return to this ‘sleep – work – anaesthetise’ cycle of modern living.
Of course bills must be paid. But for many in the developed world, this is more a threat to ‘lifestyle’ than life. Such people will despair at the demise of the industrial era and thus the demise of synthetic certainty, though they won’t necessarily use these constructs in their thinking. As the industrial era draws to a close, many businesses have chosen to block out the reality that we are amid a tectonic economic shift. Covid-19 might be considered the unofficial closing ceremony for the industrial era. For such businesses, transformation (digital / business) was not for them, a costly pursuit for other unfortunate organisations. As they are now discovering, it is simply not possible to cost cut your way out of a tailspin. Their sclerotic business models were never going to cope with something as unexpected as covid-19. It is analogous to an autumnal wind signalling the end of the season by dealing with both dead and dying leaves. The impact of covid-19 is not just biological.
But covid-19 is just one of many other forces bearing down upon us. The exponential growth of new technologies for example is having a profound impact on business and society. Throw in biotech and the future looks very unpredictable. Again, these are just a subset of all the forces at play.
And these forces are not acting in isolation, they are compounding. Synthetic certainty is giving way to hyper-uncertainty.
There might well be a post-Covid era at some point, like post-smallpox, but there won’t be a new normal or next normal. Abnormal is what lies ahead and only the most adaptable will be able to embrace it.