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During my years at the University of Texas in Austin, my Ecuadorean-born roommate Anabel introduced me to what would become one of my cultural icons: the Colombian Nobel prize-winning author Gabriel García Márquez.
His 1985 book El Amor en los Tiempos del Cólera, published in English as Love in the Time of Cholera in 1988, is a Romeo-and-Juliet saga of forbidden love and loss spanning the late 1800s to early 20th century. “García Márquez’s main notion is that lovesickness is literally an illness, a disease comparable to cholera,” according to Wikipedia.
More than thirty years later, the first line of the novel strikes me now much as it did then: “It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.”
Only now, the unrequited love is a metaphor for the economic and cultural catastrophe wrought by COVID-19, and the scent is that of hand sanitizer.
Welcome to The Age of Uncertainty.
It’s hard to keep a positive mindset amidst the forced self-isolation, the disruption of daily work and personal lives, let alone the inability to plan or envision the future (near- and long-term). But at the same time, I’ve been focusing on what this means for our society today, and how it may change our world going forward. I’m no futurist, but my day job is about always anticipating what’s next. So I’m already brainstorming: what would a post-COVID-19 world look like?
Here are five examples of how the novel coronavirus may shift our culture:
The Accelerant Effect
Expect to see the “social distancing” of consumers on this massive scale rapidly accelerate the trends already underway. For both industries on the decline – brick-and-mortar retail, shopping malls – as well as those on the rise – emerging technologies like streaming, live streaming, teleconferencing, ed-tech, telehealth, and other digital experiences – the pandemic may serve as a force multiplier fuelling those trajectories.
The New Normal
While the change in behavior forced by the large-scale quarantine may seem temporary, once people get acclimated to new ways of living and working, those habits become normalized. As a result, you can anticipate a broader acceptance of remote working, flexible workweeks and fewer in-person meetings. Look for people keeping their pantries more stocked, and their hand’s cleaner, too. Maybe even elbow-bumping will thrive. New habits die hard.
The New Homesteading
Thanks to newer business models like streaming (Netflix et al), food delivery and meal kits (Postmates, Blue Apron, etc.), professional-grade in-home services (Glam Squad and beauty tech) and of course Amazon and its e-commerce brethren, people were already getting all the benefits of the outside world in the comfort of their homes. It’s self-sufficiency, enabled by digital.
This retreat to intense home-based behavior is the 2020 version of “cocooning,” the term Faith Popcorn introduced in 1981, as a reaction to the stresses of the modern-day world. And in the current anxiety-prone environment, that may mean a move towards leveling up domesticity. Remember when in-home gyms were a new thing? Now, sleek home fitness tech brands like Peleton and Mirror are making room for renovation. Just wait til’ your neighbors show off their Sonos-tricked-out screening rooms, salon-grade bathrooms, and even wine caves (thanks, Pete Buttigieg). I can also see a rise in views of how-to videos, as the house-bound turn to YouTube and other platforms to learn new dinner skills, or start new hobbies, during their quarantine.
Rise of WFH-Wear
I’m already on the lookout for comfy but quality clothing that reads well on a Zoom conference now that in-person meetings are (for now) a thing of the past. And while high-end “athleisure” has already been tracking upwards, there’s a mint to be made in clothing that looks professional from the waist up – something that looks like you didn’t just roll out of bed and throw on a hoodie, but that you’re making an effort to present yourself. I’m waiting for new WFH-centric brands and styles to show up on Instagram before long. And, accelerating another recent trend, makeup will get more natural, minimal and functional. (It’s probably a good time to experiment with lighting, too. But no one will know if you skip a shower.)
There are many lessons to be gleaned from China’s experiences with its outbreak. And early reports indicate that its abatement is unleashing the pent-up demand for luxury spending once people start returning to work, according to Bloomberg. Apparently, high-end retail therapy is the best way to get back at the virus and feel alive.
Similarly, while the deprivation of IRL connection undoubtedly will spur a joyous movement of “revenge” un-distancing, you may see these in-person events occurring on a more intimate scale and behind closed doors. Even as the virus’s psychological impact kept people away from larger venues, I heard from friends on both coasts that private clubs like Soho House and clubby bars like the Polo Lounge were bumping, like Rome as it burned. Perhaps the threat of disease goes down easier with People Like Us drinking premium liquors, knowing no photos are allowed.
As with 9/11 and other seismic cultural events, the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 will be forever etched in our collective brains as a marker of change.
“Use this time to reinvent how you do what you do, bring consumers new alternatives, new value, and in the process even reinvent your own brand. Don’t let innovation stop, because this could be the window of opportunity,” retail futurist Doug Stephens recently told The Business of Fashion.
Think about that the next time you get a whiff of hand sanitizer. How will you seize the opportunity?