Monday, 4 May 2020

Things will never be the same (Pt II of many)

For Moni

The Covid-19 pandemic has the potential to be a tipping point in human development, much like the Black Death (which led to the  Renaissance) or the Great Plague (which led to the Enlightenment). It will be one of those historical inflection points after which our economies and societies take on a different direction and different values. The last one (here in Poland) was the change from communism to market democracy. The last one affecting the UK was the end of WWII.

But what about the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-20, which killed 50 million people, you may ask? It was very much 'forgotten plague', overshadowed by WWI, which killed 17 million combatants and civilians. The slaughter in the trenches had a greater impact on the public imagination, on art and society, than an infectious disease that comes round a once year and happened in those years to be far more virulent and deadly than usual. Historians have focused more on the social and economic effects of the Great War than on the Spanish Flu. [It was called 'Spanish' because censors of both belligerent blocs removed mention of a deadly epidemic sweeping army bases and cities alike; only in neutral Spain were the newspapers writing about it.]

Growing up I read a great many books about the First and Second World Wars; I did inter-war history at A-Level and American history at university, but a disease that killed three times as many people that died in WWI and almost as many as died in WWII barely got a mention.

Given that (touch wood!) the fatalities from Covid-19 will not be anywhere near as great as from the Spanish Flu - will Covid-19 get forgotten too? Just as the Roaring Twenties helped society in the US and UK overcome the losses of war and flu, will the rebound after Covid-19 have a similar effect? Will there be a similar drop in inequality?

Maybe, maybe not. Your point of view is crucial. It's a generation thing.

For my generation, growing up in the shadow of WWII, life was Constantly Improving. More comfortable, more interesting, more colourful. Year by year. Food was getting more varied and interesting, more plentiful and more affordable. Take crisps - once they came with salt twisted in a little piece of blue paper to sprinkle. Then - innovation! Ready salted crisps! Then the flavours - Salt & vinegar. Cheese & Onion at first. Then ever more variations around the humble salt snack. Today I get grumpy if the Co-op on Pitshanger Lane doesn't have Mature Cheddar & Red Onion Kettle Chips. Holidays changed from a week in a boarding house in Eastbourne to a fortnight on the Côte d'Azur, then Eilat, Tampa, Thailand and Borneo now Kazakhstan. The more exotic the better. Cars - from an Austin A35 to a Ford Escort to a Toyota Carina to a Range Rover Sport. Clothes that are worn a few times and forgotten about or discarded.

The long path to more and more and always more has been one-way.

But if, all of a sudden, we were to be told "That's it - there will be no more!" - my generation could well say: "That's OK. We can cope. In our sunny youth, we managed without many of these things! We could always go back to doing that again - life without fancy trainers, trekking holidays in the Andes, a new home cinema - no problem!

For my generation - not a problem. But for our children?

Our children were born into plenty - toddling around centrally heated homes with fitted carpets, watching bedtime stories on VHS cassette, eating biscuits with garishly coloured icing, being driven to ballet classes, karate practice or pony club, holidaying somewhere exciting each summer and skiing the nursery slopes in winter. To them foreign travel was always something natural - and now this has come to a sudden stop, and the road towards ever-greater prosperity is set to go into reverse.

This is the Brexit divide as well. Older folk, remembering their youth through nostalgia-tinted reading specs, could, at a pinch, re-acclimatise themselves to Life As It Was Before The Eighties.

Young and lost your job? It'll be a while. The young will have something they've been accustomed to all their lives snatched away from them.

A determining feature of Life After Covid-19 (assuming there isn't a deadlier mutation  on the way) will be the relationship between China, Europe and America. China's communist government is unlikely to say "OK, world - our fault! We let a deadly virus out of our labs/wet market, covered up, let it out - lied, and hundreds of thousands are now dead - it's all our fault, let us pay." No. the Party will deny, deflect and distract and by doing so, the rest of the world will come to mistrust China much as it mistrusts Putin's Russia today. This will hit trade. It will hit those long and tenuous supply chains stretching back to factories in Chinese cities, which have in any case been becoming more and more expensive. It has been this process of globalisation that has given ordinary Western consumers access to goods that a generation ago, only the wealthiest could dream of. Bicycles, furniture, garden tools, clothes - cheaper than ever before in real terms. Now this will end.

There will always be trade with China, but it will decline in volume. Companies worried about another pandemic, closed borders, trade friction, political uncertainty, will move their sourcing nearer home. Chinese factories will lose orders as near-shoring takes place. Robots, 3D printing and other new technologies will replace the Far East; consumers, however, will be paying more for the next replacement bicycle, deckchair and straw hat. Things will never be the same price.

For the Millennials, for whom possessions are less important than experiences - there will be less experiences to experience. Foreign travel will be severely limited and will return to being the realm of the rich. Gigs, bars and restaurants - entertainment - will continue to be subject to epidemiological restrictions and the whole sector will remain jittery for years. For most Millennials, the main thing will be to get back into work, to get that secure job. A mortgage might be easier to secure as interest rates fall even lower and property prices drift downwards.

So where's this Renaissance upside? Where's the new Enlightenment going to come from?

I think there will be a reset of human values, new thinking, new ambitions, a new aesthetic. How will that come about - I'm not sure yet - but I can feel it in the air.

This time last year:
Up to my waist

This time two years ago:
Luton Airport's never-ending modernisation works

This time five years ago:
Another office move

This time six years ago:
Workhorse of the Free World's Air Forces over Jeziorki

This time seven years ago:
Looking for The Zone, in and around Jeziorki

This time nine years ago:
I awake to snow, on 4 May

This time 13 years ago:
This is not America. No?


Ian said...


I wonder also if this will change the way we view our assets. For too many if something breaks/stops working it is thrown away and a new one purchased. In many cases this has been by design to keep the machine turning. I hope this will be re engineered so that when your TV stops working you or someone locally can take it apart, replace the faulty part and keep using it? Interesting times.

Michael Dembinski said...


I sincerely hope so. The EU is moving in that direction with circular-economy initiatives such as the Extended Producer Responsibility Directive.

Design and manufacturer has been getting better. Yesterday a guy from the Toyota dealership where we bought our Yaris in 2010 rang me and asked if we're in the market for a new one - I said that given the car is still as new - nothing has ever broken on it in about 110,000 km - there's absolutely no need for us to buy a new car! Second car - gave up on that seven years ago.

Remanufacturing is the way forward. Modular design, a module breaks down, you replace it rather than the whole product. Change is gonna come!

Ian said...

I think that is part of the car builders problem, in the past cars didn't last that long. I remember anything close to 80,000 miles was looked on as almost done. Now you can expect a car to run with some parts wearing out into 250,000 mile territory. So why buy a new one that depreciates like a stone. Trickier balance is the leisure travel side, there are cons but reducing exposure to different cultures and ways of life probably isn't a good thing.

Teresa Flanagan said...

Enjoyed this post. I suspect, in the future, our millennial children’s lives will be more focused on supporting their immediate community, No jet set life for them, anymore. Stronger ties to neighbours and local restaurants, pubs, theatre, churches, projects,. A flight out of high density, expensive and crazy busy city life, to a calmer, nature-driven, rural existence. Sounds great to me.

Michael Dembinski said...

@Ian - very true. If you think about Cuba, old cars that are 60, 70 years old, still running on ingenuity, necessity and hand-made spares, you can imagine today's cars still running into the 2070s and beyond!

I think this is a good time to buy a classic, stick it in a warm garage, drive it a couple of times a year on sunny days, and have it as an appreciating asset!

@Teresa - a Great Rebalancing awaits us all. It will affect the younger people the most. I hope the rebalancing will be for the greener, and towards more spiritual values.

student SGH said...

Your Yaris having 110,000 kilometres on the clock? My Megane, bought in July 2011, has 64,000 kilometres on the clock, therein some 30,000 kilometres in long-distance journeys. Except for airbag sensors (cost of repair: 350 PLN) nothing has broken down.

Fancy clothes, exotic holidays, posh restaurants, other manifestations of hedonism are what I can live without. What we, as humanity, cannot afford to lose, are relationships between people, which should not turn online.