The world is different, especially since Covid-19 emerged and a meagre four months ago the global pandemic triggered a lockdown of the UK economy. But the UK has been different since 2010; we have lived through a decade of dissonance and could now face a decade of mass disruption and uncertainty. Whether this will be good for our country is an interesting question that is worth exploring.
When I have conversations with people, I keep hearing the five words “this is the new norm”. It doesn’t matter where this is, whether it’s at work on Zoom, catching up with friends and family on Zoom, dealing with businesses on Zoom, or when going out shopping, not on Zoom. The new norm has pretty much replaced the conscious bias of how we see everyone and everything. We’ve all experienced this change taking place first-hand and right in front of us. It wasn’t a far-flung event that we watched, that gave us the privilege of time for planning and mitigating the impact.
In understanding this change, we should realise we are but a collection of individual world-views, that makes it difficult to grasp this great divergence the world is going through. As is often the case, there are two ways of looking at it, as though through a prism that has split into two worldviews – social and economic. In turn, these views can be examined through the relationships that exist between the individual and the environment.
To begin with, we must understand some of the key events of the past decade, which include Covid-19, Brexit, the EU referendum, the Scottish Independence debate and the coalition government. If we go back further, we can include the financial crash, the London bombing, the Iraq War, 9/11, and the infamous bursting of the DotCom bubble. Each of these events has brought about social change, and collectively they have been components of a much larger change that has been unfolding. 2020, however, will be remembered forever as the lost year by historians.
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Covid-19 is the virus that triggered the first global pandemic in 100 years. This is not the only pandemic in the last 100 years but it’s the closest, in terms of severity and impact, to the Spanish Flu of 1918. The current pandemic is different from others as it’s the first time such a global disruption since the Great Depression and World War Two that has upended the established world order. Arguably, the Ebola outbreak of 2014 in West Africa was much more severe and deadly, yet it never made it to a pandemic status. Ebola being contained as an epidemic is something we should all be thankful for, despite the vast number of tragic deaths. But that should have been a wakeup call, lessons should have been learned, and preventative measures for future outbreaks should have been put in place. This did not happen, and Covid-19 thus gripped the world.
The parallels between Covid-19 and the Spanish Flu are stark – both in terms of the pattern of the spread of the pandemic, and our inability to combat it. One way of defining the influenza outbreak in 1918 is by the human death toll, which was circa 50 million people, with over 500 million infected by the virus worldwide. Back then there was no United Nations, World Health Organization or Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nor was there a European Union or its agency the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. This was an age of empires or beginning of the end of empires. At that time we were also in the thick of a world war. But today, despite the existence of these global institutions and the role they’ve played in managing the pandemic, Covid-19 still took hold and in the UK has caused more deaths than the blitz.
The importance of all this is that society often doesn’t change unless it experiences catastrophic events that disrupt the way of life beyond recognition. What we are currently experiencing is a global shift that’s known in academic circles as a techno-economic paradigm shift; or for any respected historian, academic or economist it’s called a revolution.
The theory underpinning this is called the Kondratiev Wave, or the boom and bust cycle. The theory was developed by the Russian economist Nicholas Kondratiev in his book ‘The Major Economic Cycles (1925)’. The theory basically provides an observable understanding of how technological change every 50 to 60 years starts off with a period of high growth in economic terms and preceded by a decline. Over each cycle, radical innovations are introduced into society which become acceptable and normalised:
- First revolution: Industrial Revolution, c.1771, Britain
- Second revolution: age of steam and railway, c.1829, Britain
- Third revolution: age of steel, electricity, and heavy engineering, c.1875, USA and Germany
- Fourth revolution: age of oil, automobile and mass production, c.1908, USA
- Fifth revolution: age of information technology, c.1971, USA
No single event is the cause of such a shift; it is an amalgam of many events in a short period that combine to force the change. In the current case, we could argue, Brexit and Covid-19 are combining into one such amalgam. Still, they will not be the only ones; these changes take place over several years and who knows what is yet to transpire, but the mentioned events of the past decade have certainly contributed the sixth revolution, which is well underway.
We are the generation living through it. There is a clear socio-institutional restructuring taking place within the UK and across the globe. These structural changes are akin to what was experienced between the two world wars and onwards, that created the likes of the UN, EU, NATO and other global institutes. However, this time around, these are the very institutes at risk of being dismantled or replaced, as talk of the return of empires become prominent.
The entire UK economy and global economy has been affected as a consequence. To combat this economic decline, the UK government is spending hundreds of billions in the recovery, with other regions of the world spending trillions. In April 2020, UK gross domestic product (GDP) fell by a record 20.4 per cent, caused by the lockdown due to Covid-19. Some early estimates indicate UK GDP for 2020 will fall a by 8% per cent, which would be the deepest recession in over 100 years. Guess what happened 100 years ago?
Part two – Decade of Discovery will be published soon.
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