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The New Normal May Be More Normal Than You Think

Aspiration vs Exaggeration

Imagine for a moment that you had a time machine. You travel back 100 years in time. Once you arrive, you invite someone into the time machine for a round-trip tour of the future. They accept, and the two of you return to 2020 before the threat of COVID-19 took hold.

Your fellow time traveler from the roaring ’20s would likely be amazed by modern automobiles, their sleek lines, luxurious interiors, air-conditioning, and GPS. They would look with amazement at mobile phones, their crisp screens, color cameras with video capabilities, lack of wires, and miniature size. Services like Google, predictive weather warnings, and texting would all be amazing. Now ask your fellow time traveler what year they think it is. They’re likely to say it’s 1970. After all, our friend would see people wearing glasses, shirts with buttons, jackets with zippers, shoes with laces, and even police on horseback. They would see food being prepared and consumed in much the same way as in their own time, their favorite cocktail would look the same, and many of the buildings and monuments would not have changed. These were the very things they were promised would be replaced by modern innovations.

Today, in our pandemic-stricken world, with people working from home, unable to unwind at their favorite bar or restaurant, or hit the gym to work off the stress of sheltering in place, it makes sense that people would predict a future where everything remains disrupted. With so many losing their jobs, businesses, and even loved ones, it’s safe to say that COVID-19 has taken much from many. But will the “New Normal” be as dystopian as so many predict, or is this classic availability bias, where we base our expectations on the available information?

We are hardwired to take the everyday for granted and take note of the NEW due to the threat that the NEW may pose. It’s a defense mechanism. People are threatened by the foreign and take comfort in the familiar because the foreign presents a risk, and the familiar has often earned our trust. We fear the foreign because fear provides us the best chance of survival. While that thinking limits our downside, it limits our upside as well.

Our expectations of the future are usually misguided because while we know things will surely change, people generally do not. As Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr said in 1848, “the more things change, the more they continue to be the same thing” (often misquoted as “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”).

By looking to the past, we can make better sense of our future. Post-pandemic, it may be some time before our lives normalize, but normalize they will.

In the wake of the 911 tragedies (2001), it was predicted that air travel would cease, and people would flee cities to live in the safety of suburbia, and that Americans wouldn’t travel internationally as it would be considered too unsafe. After the 2008 housing bubble burst, it was also predicted that neither housing prices nor the stock market would ever return to their epic highs. In all these cases, these predictions were terribly wrong.

A far higher percentage of the US population have moved to cities. More US citizens hold passports than at any time in our history, and since the 2008 financial crisis, real estate prices have soared to new heights, and the stock market hit all-time highs.

How long will it take for the effects of COVID-19 to fade from memory? We can equate the global pandemic to a storm, which can be defined as a powerful disturbance of the atmosphere. Here that atmosphere is our daily lives. The new normal will be the calm after the storm. Just as the current level of airport security and financial lending scrutiny were once nonexistent, and now the norm, there will be lasting effects for the pandemic. However, those too will fade from our attention as the foreign becomes familiar.