The world will be a friendlier place; more people will want to get married; big jump in home improvement; and a sharp drop in savings.
I was recently reading about counterfactuals – thought experiments where economists and historians take a critical event in history, and contemplate how life could have been different today, if it had not happened, or had a different outcome. For example, what would have happened if Britain had not followed a policy of appeasement towards Germany in the early 1930s? Or, if Japan had not bombed Pearl Harbour and compelled the USA to join the war effort on the side of the Allies? These events played a key role in shaping the compulsions of the British in 1947, and, therefore, in the creation of India as a nation. Imagine the course of history if Britain had nipped German aggression in the 1930s and not allowed Hitler to emerge – we could be living in a very different world!
As we are currently living through a situation which will definitely be the subject of counterfactuals in the future, I decided to flip things around and try to foresee the unintended consequences of the COVID-19 crisis. Many consultants, soothsayers and other people who make a living foretelling events are already proclaiming that the world will, henceforth, be divided into pre and post COVID-19 eras. So, what will be the contours of this post COVID-19 world? How will it be different from the world we were familiar with, until the SARS-CoV-2 virus forced us indoors?
I have tried to look beyond the immediate and obvious changes, like people refusing to shake hands, or rushing to the market to stock up for a feared repeat of the lockdown, or speculate on the future of online shopping. I have also chosen to stay away from things like the impact on global tourist trade, the future relationship of China with the rest of the world, or its potential implications for India. There are enough consultants, corporate gurus, and global strategists giving gyaan on these subjects. Instead, I am focusing on my specific area of interest – understanding humans, and how we relate to other people and the material world around us.
Here are my five call-outs – five things I will be referring back to, over the years, with an “I told you so” attached:
1. The world will be a friendlier place
Social distancing is counter-intuitive for humans. We have evolved as social animals, and being locked away and deprived of social contact has caged this animal. A generation that has grown up believing time is money, and that these are the only two scarce resources in the world, is now sitting twiddling their collective thumbs with nothing to do with their time, and no avenue to pursue the growth of their wealth.
As people turn to parties hosted on online platforms, and video calls to stay in touch with current friends and reconnect with old ones, they are rediscovering the joys of social connection and the lost art of making conversation. In countless online chats across the world, people are committing to meet each other on the other side of the lockdown, and have a real party when this is behind us. In the immediate post COVID-19 period – or whenever the world is opened up enough for such activity, expect a spate of reunions, prepare for the sight of 40-plus uncles behaving like teenagers, and for a run on the tourist infrastructure.
With the glorious uncertainties of life demonstrated by the virus, more people are likely to behave like the '3 idiots' in the film, and fewer are going to emulate 'Chatur'. Professors, parents or bosses advising hard work today in order to reap the fruits tomorrow, will find it more difficult to argue their case.
In short, I believe like the flower children spawned by the fear of apocalypse during the Cold War of the 60s and 70s, the COVID-19 crisis is going to create a generation of friendly live-in-the-moment frolickers.
2. Rapid growth in the number of marriages
Many residents of the urban jungle across the world live a solitary existence – either alone or in spaces they co-habit with strangers and acquaintances. Faced with the prospect of weeks cooped up in this miserable state, numerous young people tried to skip out and go home to their families in the hinterland – some succeeded, most failed. Currently, they are spending their days measuring the length and breadth of their private space over and over again, talking to themselves and sometimes to people on the TV screens.
Fortunately, I am not one of them. Spending the lockdown in the company of a friend I have known for 25 years ,and been married to for 20, I can only speak about the plight of the lonely single as an onlooker. Nevertheless, the two months I spent as a summer trainee in the 1990s, travelling the four states of South India on inter-state buses, and the six months I spent as a weekly commuter between Delhi and Mumbai, do give me some first-hand insight into what they would be feeling. All of them will be ruing their lost chances to build a relationship, wondering where a certain friendship might have headed if they had invested in it. Some may even be kicking themselves for having screamed at their mother when she tried to arrange a match. Those of them who have a significant other locked away in a different location would be resolving to end the wait as soon as the lockdown ends.
Adding to the desire for company that staying alone for protracted periods creates, is the economic logic of two salaries being better than one, and the nesting instinct in the face of an uncertain future.
I believe an epidemic of marriages among young professionals will take up the number of marriages and bring down the average age of grooms and brides right after the COVID-19 epidemic subsides. Married is set to become the status of choice.
3. Step jump in demand for housing and home improvement
A large part of the urban population is used to seeing the home as a parking spot for the night. It is seen as a functional space, little or no resources are committed to making it comfortable, aesthetically pleasing, or even keeping it clean. Things have come to a point where not just the home, but even the furniture, furnishings and appliances are leased, rather than bought.
The lockdown has changed the relationship between the home and its occupant overnight. Today, it’s the office we work in, the school we go to, the gym we workout in, the restaurant, multiplex, pub, disc we visit to unwind – the home has become the universe we live in. At the same time, the expensive car we bought, the tickets to the foreign holiday we planned, the designer wear we wanted to show off – every material good we ever prioritised over making the home more comfortable, silently mocks us.
An unlucky few among us – healthcare professionals, airline employees, and some others in essential services have had the unnerving experience of being turned away by their landlords because of the fear of infection, and because they have the power to do so. This vulnerability of the tenant is sure to have caught the attention of every person inhabiting a space on “leave and license”.
I believe once the lockdown ends and things settle down, there will be a resurgence in end-user demand for housing on one hand, and a surge in demand for everything that makes a house a home. The nesting instincts of a fearful animal combined with the dip in value of financial investments is going to create demand; it is up to the real estate sector to create an affordable option.
Another factor at play will be employers’ active encouragement for work-from-home arrangements. The need for a more comfortable home-office and the lower frequency of commute to the workplace will lead people to trade-off proximity for larger, more comfortable living spaces in the suburbs.
In the post COVID-19 world, people are going to invest in creating comfortable, secure nests for themselves.
4. A sharp drop in private domestic savings
A steep drop in the financial markets has accompanied the upward graph of the virus. People have been seeing their accumulated wealth melt away, even as they sit and mull over all the things they regret not having done in their lives. The virus demonstrated, in an extremely brutal manner, just how uncertain our future is, and how little we can do to “secure” this future for us and our children. This is bound to make people – especially the ones at the beginning of their productive careers – re-evaluate the value of enjoying today, versus saving for tomorrow. On the other hand, those of us who are approaching the end of our careers will start prioritising our bucket list, the things-we-must-do-before-we-die over adding to the retirement kitty. Only the people in the in-between life stages, who have specific goals like saving for a home, or the kids’ education, will stay active.
In effect, the financial markets needs to prepare for a reduction in the number of investors, and a sharp drop in the per capita investment; and, perhaps, a lower appetite for risk. Of course, the enhanced attractiveness of the Indian market for foreign investors in a post COVID-19 world may counter-balance this, and yet create a buoyant stock market.
The post COVID-19 world will witness a larger share of incomes being committed to consumption, and less to savings.
5. A new era of environmentally conscious consumption
The fresh air we are breathing, the clean waters of the Yamuna and the Ganges we are seeing in pictures, the clearing up of the skies we are observing, and last but not the least, the reclaiming of human spaces by wild species that we are witnessing have established two facts:
(1) How big an impact we humans have had on the environment.
(2) How quickly nature can repair itself.
The environment sceptics have been slapped on their faces with evidence of what human economic activity is doing to the environment. At the same time, the lazy majority, which defended inaction saying things are too far gone and can’t be reversed, have been administered a swift kick on our collective backside by the visible effect of five weeks of no human activity.
The lockdown has not only given time to nature to work its wonders, but also offered humans the luxury of time to introspect, reflect and discuss with each other the need to lower the demands our consumerist avarice is placing on natural resources. Given that many of us believe even the COVID-19 pandemic is the outcome of human avarice in some manner, the urge to not be like “them” will likely propel us to some kind of action in a post lockdown scenario.
On this last one, I am, perhaps, mixing wishful thinking in equal parts with objective analysis. However, I am counting on the millennials to prove me right. In every environment-related marketing campaign I have ever been associated with, this generation has responded with engagement and action.
So my final call-out is that the post COVID-19 world will see humans adopt a more circumspect approach towards consumption.
(The author is CMO, Croma-Infiniti Retail.)