The pandemic wiped our unfinished business off the radar. Those issues will return in 2021, having picked up momentum during the great staggering, while no one was watching. (The great staggering is a term coined by Flux Trends that describes the period between pandemic induced lockdown and the much-anticipated new normal.)
2019: The politics of rage and polarisation
After a year in lockdown most people yearn to return to normal. But if the benchmark of “normal” was 2019, then it was not a state of being to yearn for.
If our planet was a pressure cooker, the lid was poised to blow.
A quarter of the world’s countries (47 countries) experienced surges in civil unrest, mostly violent. The triggers were seemingly minor and there were two distinct triggers.
Firstly, the weakening of mechanisms for expressing discontent, for example, restrictions by governments on labour unions or attacks on freedom of the press.
Secondly, cuts to fuel, food or travel subsidies. A mere 4% rise in subway fares in Chile roused a million people to protest, forcing the government to declare a state of emergency, while in Lebanon 20 cents’ tax for using WhatsApp brought hundreds of thousands of protesters onto the streets. The pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong sparked in September, while Greta Thunberg’s solo school strike inspired more than four-million people in 150 countries to take part in the Climate Strike (aka the Global Day of Action).
Adding fuel to the protest fires was the rise of populist politics, with fake news increasing polarisation within many countries. Externally, geopolitical storms were brewing, with mutterings of deglobalisation and the decoupling of the USA/China tech sector, giving rise to the term “tech nationalism”, where the prospect of sharing information for greater good was put at risk.
On the pop culture front, identity politics and “cancel culture” made for treacherous social interactions, while issues of sustainability moved fully into the consumer mindset spawning a new psychological condition – “eco anxiety”.
The well-worn business school acronym VUCA (which stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) was the perfect description of the zeitgeist.
2020: The great pause
When the year started, the planet was angry – in hindsight, understandably so.
We entered 2020 with raging bushfires in Australia and America. It seemed that Mother Nature was presenting us with proof of climate change. New Delhi residents were literally choking from pollution: so much so that a bar in the city started serving oxygen shots. And just to ensure we were listening, a plague of locusts descended in East Africa, decimating crops.
And then a pandemic was unleashed.
VUCA switched to BANI (brittleness, anxiety, nonlinearity and incomprehensibility.)
In lockdown, once we had all adapted to self-confinement and mastered video conferencing (but strangely, never learning to unmute ourselves) humanity experienced an existential crisis of sorts, spurred on by anticipatory grief. With life in limbo came the realisation that one’s work, and one’s place of work, are not mutually exclusive. This “a-ha” moment triggered a far-reaching ripple effect and a reassessment of life’s priorities, changing how we want to live, work and play post-pandemic.
Psychologists say it takes 21 days to form a habit, so 10 months of new learned behaviours should ensure that radical transformations are embedded.
In business, 2019 issues of deglobalisation and sustainability were put in sharp focus. Global supply chains, reliant solely on China, were quickly reassessed. The madness of the fast fashion industry was exposed but so too were the fragilities of small business owners. The Financial Times captured a retailer’s dilemma perfectly, writing that” “many companies have little choice but to begin some revamping of their business models: the pandemic has made sure that either their customers are no longer where they were or have no need of what they are selling”.
Societal inequalities were laid bare and that anger and frustration manifested itself with global Black Lives Matter protests after the killing of George Floyd. The 2019 fires of rage and polarisation were stoked and escalated. Pop culture and politics became intertwined, while time became elastic.
2020 felt like a decade and with nothing but our digital screens to stare at, we won’t remember much in years to come. Future history lessons might refer to 2020 as “the year we don’t talk about”.
2021: Rethinking, reframing, recalibration
“Empathy” was the one word that consistently cropped up in 2020. Humanising businesses will now become fundamental to every business model.
Ideological debates around looking beyond the bottom line and shareholder primacy that were hovering before 2020 will be escalated in 2021, and companies that ignore this shift do so at their peril.
B Corporation listings (for companies that meet high standards of social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability) and environmental, social and governance (ESG) ratings are fast becoming the gold standard on what companies are judged upon. With activist consumers as customers, brand reputation is no longer a commodity anyone can afford to gamble with.
A new contactless economy has emerged and for businesses lagging behind in digital transformation, they now have to fast-forward their strategies by five years: the time span that the adoption of new systems has been accelerated in 2020.
While accelerated digitalisation is crucial, so too is a change in ethos and values. That may translate into embracing localised supply chains and supporting small, medium and micro enterprises as much as it is investing in holistic wellness for employees – such as understanding that familial needs and responsibilities impact personal productivity.
Sustainability takes centre stage and seeps into every business sector as it becomes less of a consumer responsibility and more the responsibility of big business. “Sustainability loans” are entering the lexicon of hedge funds and private equity while the concept of circular economies (which aim to gradually decouple growth from the consumption of finite resources) is becoming mainstream.
New concepts (and curve balls) such as a “work from home tax” for businesses, and in politics looming issues of “vaccine diplomacy” will further complicate navigating an already disrupted world.
On the home front, parents who thought online grooming was a problem will now have to contend with the fact that teenagers are now being groomed by far-right extremists via video games, not for sexual abuse, but for their political souls.
Welcome to the new normal. Best we get used to the taste of the curate’s egg.