It's official. The coronavirus pandemic's biggest victim is the U.S. economy.
Despite some states' recent efforts to reopen their economies, periodic surges in infections and the lack of a marketable COVID-19 vaccine make it a virtual certainty that this will be a U-shaped (or perhaps a WWWWW-shaped) recession lasting at least the next two to three years, maybe longer.
And that's not the worst of it.
The worst of it is that when the U.S. economy finally does emerge from the pandemic, it won't look much like it did before. Structural upheavals in the economy over the last decade are being turbocharged by the pandemic, and many traditional business models and career paths are now obsolete.
Here are some of my personal predictions. May history prove me to be overly pessimistic.
We Will All Be Hypochondriacs. I used to laugh at the hand sanitizers in my local supermarket and the people who wore face masks on airplanes.
The pandemic has made us all more sensitive to (and less tolerant of) other people and their personal hygiene. When I see someone in a store who's not wearing a mask or not following the painted arrows on the floor, I call them out on it (or alert a manager). We are becoming increasingly aware — and protective of — our personal space.
We will still go to grocery stores but at 6 a.m. on Sunday when there's no one else there. We will avoid stores more by having things delivered to and picked up from our homes. We will avoid large crowds, maybe permanently.
We Will All Be Homebodies. I'm seeing more kids riding bicycles in my neighborhood, more grown-ups walking their dogs and more people doing home renovation projects. Something I've known for the past 25 years: Learning, working and playing remotely is much more efficient than schlepping to an office, school or theater. People are not only waking up to that; they are liking it.
No longer just a place to sleep, home is once again becoming the center of our lives — our school, our workplace, our gym, our play place.
Most of the traditional office workday is taken up with nonproductive tasks that are eliminated when people work from home. Getting rid of long commutes, unnecessary meetings and water-cooler chats mean most workers can do in 3 to 4 hours what used to take 8 hours. Bright, motivated kids can learn a lot faster at home than being stuck on a one-size-fits-all classroom treadmill.
Big employers are waking up to this, too. Look for massive employee reductions in force in coming months, with fewer employees working longer hours in their pajamas.
Working more efficiently also means more people have more time to take care of elderly relatives at home (making death-trap nursing homes less necessary), and the loss of socialization resulting from kids not seeing their classmates in school every day can be offset partially by seeking live interactions with other kids in their neighborhoods.
Brick-and-Mortar Is Yielding to Silicon. Once the big corporations have become virtual, their big office buildings and rental spaces will be the next to go.
Most retail, service and other businesses will be conducted 100% online. Shopping centers are already morphing into condo complexes. Corporate campuses are being donated to universities. And suburban strip malls are becoming medical offices.
Technology Holds It All Together. Your personal computer and smartphone have become your everything-things and are now indispensable. They will increasingly run your life. Even temporary power outages will become existential crises, and whoever figures out how to shut down the internet will rule the world.
And while millennials and Gen Z folks have always lived on their phones, the pandemic has — wonder of wonders! — pushed baby boomers, kicking and screaming, into the digital world.
Escape From New York (and Chicago and Los Angeles). People will rethink living in large cities. What makes New York New York — the theaters, the restaurants, the museums, the sporting events — all relies on large groups of people in close proximity. Say goodbye to all that.
When you can do anything anywhere, you don't have to be anywhere at all.
Six months ago, there was a glut of single-family homes for sale in my suburban hometown about an hour's train ride north of New York City. Today, there are hardly any "for sale" signs in town, and cars with New York license plates are cruising local neighborhoods leaving flyers in mailboxes.
"We Can't Go On Together with Suspicious Minds" (apologies to Elvis Presley). All of the above may lead to a decline in trust — in people and institutions. History shows that the more people are physically isolated from one another, the more they take comfort in tribes, fear outsiders and tune out information that threatens their worldview. Look for an increase in social fragmentation, and in intolerance of divergent opinions and cultures.
Like all historical events, the pandemic will produce winners and losers. The losers will be those who can't adapt to the new normal, while the winners will be those who learn to surf the waves.
For specific ideas on where the small-business winners might be, see next week's column.
Cliff Ennico ([email protected]) is a syndicated columnist, author and former host of the PBS television series "Money Hunt." This column is no substitute for legal, tax or financial advice, which can be furnished only by a qualified professional licensed in your state. To find out more about Cliff Ennico and other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit our webpage at www.creators.com.
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