Writing to shareholders this week, BlackRock Inc.s chief executive officer Larry Fink ruminated on how business and society will be reshaped by the searing experience of the new coronavirus: “People worldwide are fundamentally rethinking the way we work, shop, travel and gather. When we exit this crisis, the world will be different. Investors’ psychology will change. Business will change. Consumption will change. And we will be more deeply reliant on our families and each other to stay safe.”
I had a similar epiphany this week while trying to cut my own hair — it turns out my regular $30 haircut isn’t as essential as I’d thought. Preparing a meal for my family later that evening made me think that eating out or getting dinner delivered isn’t as rewarding as home cooking. Right now the do-it-yourself version also feels a whole lot safer, and probably will do for a while.
Compared to the courage shown by medical workers and those in other essential functions, and the devastation wrought by coronavirus on already vulnerable communities, many of us in the western world have it easy. We’re asked to do no more than stay home. But in between worrying about our jobs, our parents and how to entertain or home-school children, we’re reevaluating priorities. What will we do differently when this is over? What will we prize more and what will we give up?
Once the immediate battle to protect employees and remain solvent has passed, the business world will have to confront these questions too.
Two themes stand out: Instead of visiting far-flung places and seeking out mass entertainment, I’m sure there will be a bias toward more modest, local activities. And where the coronavirus has exposed dependency or vulnerability, as with the business world’s complex cross-border supply chains, we’ll seek more security and resilience.
Looming above all of this is the damage that the lockdowns are inflicting on people’s incomes. The longer the economic shutdown lasts, the more reluctant the world’s consumers will be to spend, period. With more than 10 million Americans filing new unemployment claims in the past fortnight, the omens aren’t good.
In the worst-affected sectors such as travel, hospitality and leisure, businesses are already facing a bleaker future. Increased consumer awareness about the negative environmental and social impact of mass tourism has now been compounded by the realization that people on planes and pleasure boats carried the virus around the globe. Lufthansa AG’s boss, Carsten Spohr, thinks the German airline will have to shrink because the economy will be smaller than before. Easyjet Plc’s founder, Stelios Haji-Ioannou, said similar this week when calling on the carrier to cancel a big order from Airbus SE.
Until coronavirus came along, the tech world seemed hell-bent on taking agency away from individuals and consigning ownership to the dustbin. Why learn to cook when you can have food delivered in 30 minutes? Why own a car when you can take an Uber? Why look after your gadgets, when those nice people at Apple will fix them for you. But as my colleague Adam Minter pointed out this week, it’s only in a crisis that you discover the drawbacks of not being able to repair your own phone.
Coronavirus has exposed our vulnerability and it won’t be the last crisis. Our planet-warming emissions mean more pain is preordained. Faced with uncertainty or disaster, humans respond by trying to strengthen their communities. We’ll also seek more control over our lives. For societies, that means equipping our health services, paying key workers properly and securing supplies. As individuals, it means out-sourcing fewer decisions and mastering things for ourselves. Chris Bryant, Bloomberg