“I’m stepping through the door. And I’m floating in the most peculiar way. And the stars look very different today.”
Bowie had a knack for capturing emotional complexity when confronted with unfamiliar circumstances. These lyrics drifted through my mind whilst sitting in my back garden, late in the night, looking up at the night sky with awe. Distant light from millions of years ago rained down on oceans, fields, cities and suburban back-gardens. Bright beams, full of secrets, whispers and profound unknowns.
Less poetically — but no less important for that — the Department for Energy, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has noted a significant drop in air pollution. In Manchester alone, the UK measures that require people to stay at home, avoid transport and to only leave the house for essential jobs has facilitated a significant reduction in daily nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels.
Swiftly, perceptibly, a change in our collective behaviours has had a profound impact. We can now see the stars that were previously hidden.
What The World Needs Now
What the world doesn’t need right now is another article starting with the phrase — ‘ In these strange and uncertain times’. We don’t need another lament detailing the sheer, relentless and society-levelling malice of the disease. It’s dreadful and it has — and will — affect us all in ways unpleasant and horrifying. We acknowledge the indiscriminate brutality of the virus.
Yet — as we are constantly told — for most of us, these things shall pass. In the meantime, we have to tackle our current isolation.
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone”
Blaise Pascal, Pensées
If this is the case, then we are about to unleash an unprecedented torrent of problems as we wrestle with our enforced, mass solitude.
Or is there an alternative? Could this time represent an opportunity to draw a line in the sand and attempt to do things differently? Could ‘sitting quietly’ instead be a catalyst to uncover much-needed solutions to our modern problems?
We will be changed by this experience. We will feel changed. The tumult of the last 5 years of social and political confusion has crescendoed and we find ourselves at a crossroads. Not out of choice. But of necessity. This is an enforced pause. A global moment of mandatory reflection.
The practices of the past — so unthinkingly celebrated and reinforced by our day to day actions — are being reappraised. From top to bottom. The futility of busyness over productivity becomes ever-more apparent. Our obsession with speed over meaning looks foolish. Our constantly distracted minds have been urged to sit with their own thoughts.
The way in which we work, live, socialise, educate our children, even the very way we think is currently up for debate.
Where Have We Been
The vague reassurances of getting things back to normal seem comforting. Normal is more enjoyable than lockdown after all.
Yet from a human perspective, has the normality of work actually been damaging for the age we find ourselves in? Have we unwittingly, unthinkingly, tethered ourselves too unproductive, unhealthy and damaging working practices of the past?
We need to explore where we’ve been before we unleash our collective efforts to return to ‘normal’. ‘Normality’ might not be our next destination. Perhaps it shouldn’t be.
We have long-operated in a maddening contract with the state. One which demands adherence to a way of life that simultaneously grants us the illusion of reward whilst binding us to a set of behaviours that are likely to accelerate anxiety, reduce working performance and make our souls ache.
From birth, through nursery and school, we are constantly exposed to rigid power structures. Ways of thinking and acting to prepare us for a lifetime of compliance. Some of us are lucky enough to break free during university experiences — personalising rhythms and working rituals that empower us to create great work on our own terms. It’s a freeing time. A chance to embark on an educational hike, with little importance attached to each individual step, and far greater weight given to the eventual view from the summit.
Yet we swiftly find ourselves thrust back into a rigid framework of employment. Set hours. Restrictions laid out for our own good. 9am-5pm. 8am-6pm. 6am-10pm. Ever-increasing working days mandated by a need to please unseen, inhuman — yet constantly vigilant — shareholders. Raised eyebrows from peers stamp out any fleeting desire to challenge established practices.
We bind ourselves to mortgages as long as lifetimes, signing up to years of trepidation and never veering from a pattern of rigid monthly payments. Old-age is rapidly accelerated. On we toil, staggering towards a deceptively-distant retirement only to find that any remaining money is squandered on private healthcare, needed to remedy the impact of a life lived under the relentless thumb of unease.
It’s what we do. It’s the system. There’s no point in considering an alternative.
And it’s not all bad. In return for these behaviours, we are protected, we find comfort — the routine and purpose provided are necessary to each of us on a deep human level. Removing this contract simply promotes panic. So on we plod, locked in by this expectation. On we plod, locked down by this binding contract.
Business as usual. But is this a state we want to return to?
The Promise Of Tomorrow
Tomorrow offers us a chance to harness the beauty of today.
We can embrace a more human way of working and living, underpinned by technology and supported by a greater emphasis on emotional intelligence.
We can become less reliant on city working, easing the strain on infrastructure and giving it some time to catch-up. We now know we can connect well from a distance, and cherish face to face connections when we come together. Less commuting will mean less pollution, healthier lives and more time to spend being parents and children at both ends of the day.
A renewed appreciation of our healthcare workers will facilitate an exploration of the technology that can improve our response in the future. The need to better coordinate international information-sharing should stem the rising tide of nationalism — in the background at least. Forward thinking professionals will design and enhance links with healthcare providers across the globe to support humans in the face of grave health threats, irrespective of their place of birth.
We can redesign the educational experience. Do higher learning institutions really need to return to five day weeks? We should strive to create a better blend between effective mentorship from learning providers, and greater autonomy for individual students. A school week could require physical presence on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, with home or library working on Tuesdays or Thursdays — a better blend of physical and virtual learning.
In workplaces, the traditional blocks of presenteeism have been removed. Trust in the ability of your colleagues to get things done will increase. We can finally focus on the work we do — not the fact we simply turned up, logged in and sat at our desks as though that’s what counted. The ability to communicate, empathise and motivate will become sought-after skills rather than secondary considerations. Workers will become active participants in designing their approach to work rather than passive recipients of an outmoded way of doing things. Our increased autonomy will enable us to become more adept at changing course, to be more resilient in a technology-obsessed world, and enable us to use that technology to support rather than define our days.
We’re now working out how to behave like this. The new patterns of behaviour that we’ve uncovered will become invaluable skills once the restrictions are removed. There will be fewer barriers to progress once the clouds have lifted.
The promise of tomorrow means we can redesign our infrastructure, healthcare, education, working and family practices to better prepare ourselves for where the world has already found itself.
Our new normal will be a place we want to be. We’ll have caught up with the possibilities that the world has been offering us for years. Our ambitions will be loftier, our abilities supercharged and our connection to one another enhanced.
The promise of tomorrow is a more human change for the better. Underpinned — not defined by — technology.
We will be able to see the stars that were previously hidden.
“These things shall pass, and some great morning we’ll look back and smile at the heartaches we’ve known.”
Co Contributor – Alex Heywood
Image – Jack B @unsplash