When something gets stretched or squashed, engineers talk about ‘elastic’ and ‘plastic’ deformations. Elastic, as you might expect, is something that can be stretched or squashed and then return to its original shape. Plastic deformations are more permanent. In a plastic deformation, something is bent beyond its elastic range and the new shape is retained.
When we’re talking about the changes that will stay with us after the COVID-19 pandemic, it feels to me like we frequently confuse plastic and elastic deformations. People experience an elastic change long enough for it to become a temporary ‘new normal’, and come to the mistaken belief it will be permanent. But when the pressure is removed, it is much more likely that things will snap back to their old state.
The evidence that most of the changes in our lifestyles through lockdown have been elastic is now pretty clear. You only have to look at the pictures from Durdle Door, the queues outside IKEA, or the data on German restaurant bookings (below) when the lockdown has been lifted, to see that most people are going to return to normal behaviour in most things.
Restaurant reservations by country. Just look at Germany: yesterday reservations were back to where they were this time last year. pic.twitter.com/QzyKjmFFW6
— Ed Conway (@EdConwaySky) June 1, 2020
This doesn’t mean some changes from the crisis won’t stay with us. The many, many deaths will live long in the memory of friends and loved ones. NHS, care, and other workers with the most direct exposure to the crisis, will not forget in a hurry.
Some companies have failed. They’re not coming back. There will be a lasting effect on the wealth of many.
The old normal
Most things though will return to the old normal. At least here in the UK. Millions of years of evolved human behaviour won’t be disrupted by a few weeks of enforced social distancing. My suspicion is that the plastic, sustained changes will fall into three categories:
- Change enforced by law: legislation will enshrine some pandemic measures in law. Let’s just hope the disenfranchisement of many voters doesn’t last…
- Change enforced by caution: risk managers and HR departments in organisations are likely to be extra cautious about their responsibilities and liabilities, driving more enforced behaviour change
- Change enforced by failure: the businesses that have failed might not be coming back, and nor might their business models
This last point highlights the fact that COVID-19 didn’t really spawn any new trends. It simply accelerated existing ones: online shopping, flexible working. Trends that people maybe thought they had time to deal with, but that time was cut short.
Aftershocks and Opportunities
I made a more specific, but more detailed version of this point focused on flexible working for my chapter in the new book, Aftershocks and Opportunities. This is available now on Amazon Kindle and features the thoughts of thirty futurists, strategists and foresight professionals from around the world on life post lockdown. I would urge you to check it out.