The Next New Normals – in General

Virtually all of us are radically changing our lives to adjust to the new realities caused by the coronavirus crisis.

This is a major shock to our entire global society, and it certainly will cause major changes in the way that people and organizations think and act in the future.

As governments, institutions, and individuals adjust to the pandemic, we will be a new normal for a while as we cope.  At this point, it is impossible to know how long we will be in this crisis mode.  Presumably, it will be at least another month or two and perhaps a year or two – hopefully not longer than that.  Bill Gates suggests that we won’t truly return to normal until we get a vaccine, which will take more than a year.  For the “duration,” people’s mindsets may be similar to that during wars or long economic downturns.

At some point, presumably we will emerge into a more normal new normal.  This post speculates about what that new normal might be like.  It refers to this as the “normal new normal” (NNN) in contrast to the “crisis new normal” (CNN).

As the crisis recedes, we probably won’t be able to “put the genie back in the bottle.”  In just one example of a legacy of the crisis, an airline announced that its new sanitation procedures will continue after the crisis is over.  Going forward, organizations and individuals undoubtedly will make many decisions to continue CNN procedures.

In any case, new normals don’t last forever.  The effects of shocks fade over time and new events take precedence.  Some new normals are reactions against the prior normals (aka the status quo).  Consider the trajectories following the Great Depression, World War II, Great Society, the American War in Vietnam, Watergate, 9/11, and the 2008 Recession.

This post is the first in a series about the new normal.  It discusses what we might expect the future to look like generally.  Another post focuses specifically on legal and dispute resolution practice, court procedures, and legal education.  Another discusses communication, privacy, and community in the new normal.  This post discusses continuing professional education.

Two years later, I discussed the evolving new normals in dispute resolution and social relationships.

To a significant extent, the future will be contingent on decisions we make individually and collectively.

Major Shifts in the Past

It may help to think about past shocks that caused major social shifts.  In the US (and probably most countries), wars have changed popular consciousness and social institutions.  Consider the “normals” before and after the Revolutionary War, Civil War, World Wars I and II, the American War in Vietnam, both American wars in Iraq, and the “War Against Terrorism.”

Economic shocks also have prompted major changes.  Consider the boom-and-bust cycles in the 1800s, the Great Depression in 1929, and the Great Recession in 2008.  Holders of dominant economic power exerted great influence, including the robber barons of the 19th Century and the greed-is-good bankers in recent decades.

Social movements have caused major changes such as those initiated by the abolitionist, white supremacist, anti-Semitic, temperance, labor, leftist, anti-communism, women’s rights, civil rights, environmental, counterculture, pro-choice and anti-abortion, evangelical, Federalist Legal Society, Tea Party, and conspiracy-driven movements.

Social attitudes changed following the AIDS epidemic, with greater acceptance of gays and lesbians and eventually LGBTQ people.

Political scandals often precipitate changes to varying degrees.  Think of the Pentagon Papers disclosures about the American War in Vietnam, Watergate, FBI and CIA abuses, Iran-Contra, failure to “connect the dots” before 9/11, and mass NSA surveillance and data collection.

Throughout American history, political attitudes changed, typically in connection with the dynamics described above.  Much of it had to do with fluctuating attitudes about federal government and racial status.  There were periods when there was a general consensus that federal government action was desperately needed and other periods when people felt that the federal “government is the problem” and needs to be sharply restrained.

Imagining the Next New Normals

Government and other institutional actors have responded to combat the pandemic.  Presumably, this process of rolling out new regulations and practices will continue for some period.  Everyone has been settling into routines in the CNN as we wait out the process of sheltering in place, physical distancing, communicating electronically, working from home, etc.

At some point, we will shift to an NNN.  Conceivably, this could happen with some official declaration of victory over the spread of the pandemic.  Instead or in addition, the shift may be more gradual and subtle, occurring in waves and at different times in various locations.

What will the NNN look like?  How will it compare with the CNN and the old normal?

Presumably, following the CNN, people would continue many of their new routines.  If so, the decisions and routines that people develop during the CNN period may have long-lasting effects during the (next) NNN period.  In addition, institutions and individuals may initiate broader changes during this period of disruption and recovery.

I was prompted to write this post by reading several articles anticipating possible futures as we go through this global experience.  This post includes extended excerpts, and you may want to read the entire articles.

Social Conflict in the US

Politico published a good article, Coronavirus Will Change the World Permanently. Here’s How. with 34 “big thinkers’ predictions.”  Peter Coleman, one of the intellectual leaders of our field and the author of the forthcoming book, The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization, wrote the following:

The extraordinary shock(s) to our system that the coronavirus pandemic is bringing has the potential to break America out of the 50-plus year pattern of escalating political and cultural polarization we have been trapped in, and help us to change course toward greater national solidarity and functionality.  It might sound idealistic, but there are two reasons to think it can happen.

The first is the “common enemy” scenario, in which people begin to look past their differences when faced with a shared external threat.  COVID-19 is presenting us with a formidable enemy that will not distinguish between reds and blues, and might provide us with fusion-like energy and a singularity of purpose to help us reset and regroup.  During the Blitz, the 56-day Nazi bombing campaign against the Britain, Winston Churchill’s cabinet was amazed and heartened to witness the ascendance of human goodness – altruism, compassion and generosity of spirit and action.

The second reason is the “political shock wave” scenario.  Studies have shown that strong, enduring relational patterns often become more susceptible to change after some type of major shock destabilizes them.  This doesn’t necessarily happen right away, but a study of 850 enduring inter-state conflicts that occurred between 1816 to 1992 found that more than 75 percent of them ended within 10 years of a major destabilizing shock.  Societal shocks can break different ways, making things better or worse.  But given our current levels of tension, this scenario suggests that now is the time to begin to promote more constructive patterns in our cultural and political discourse.  The time for change is clearly ripening.

Note the emphasis on human agency in deciding how to respond.

The Future of Work

An article in the New York Times entitled, Is the Coronavirus Shaping the Future of How We Work?, suggests that we may be at “an inflection point of the same significance as World War II.”

If private industries can be shamed into providing sick days for employees, will they take those benefits away when the panic passes?  If thousands of homeless people living on the streets can be placed in hotels to protect against disease, as Gov. Gavin Newsom is pledging to do, will they later be returned to tent encampments?

As millions of college students – and their teachers – adjust to remote classes, will the universities continue to battle the idea of online education?  If overcrowded jails safely release inmates awaiting trial in order to mitigate the danger of widespread infection, will they go back to locking up those who cannot afford bail?

Will the tens of thousands of “super-commuters” in the Central Valley city of Stockton – more than a quarter of the population – return to their cars for daily multihour drives to the Bay Area?

. . .

Now the risks have become exponentially greater, and the connections more obvious. Infected food workers and Uber drivers who lack sick days can spread the disease to even the most well-off.  Will the virus force an overdue reckoning with structural inequities built into a society that depends on a service class that can barely get by, even in good times?”

This article highlights a potential “pendulum” shift in attitudes about individual vs. community responsibility and the importance of strong government policy.  Presumably, many people who have touted the role of individual self-interest will increasingly recognize our inter-dependency as individuals have strong self-interests in others’ welfare.  If people are sick and can’t get good health care, it can affect everyone.  So, in addition to support for policies based on intrinsic concern about caring for others, there may be an increasing consensus about things like universal health care, family and sick leave, living wages, unemployment insurance, and tele-commuting.  Indeed, Democratic politicians are considering how to incorporate their policy ideas into government actions in response to the crisis.

Which ideas will be adopted in this CNN period and which will survive in the NNN?

The Future of Higher Education

A New York Times op-ed by experts on innovation in college education, What Is a College Education in the Time of Coronavirus?, considers possible changes in higher education after we emerge from this crisis.  It quotes a student’s tweet noting the universal shift to online education is “[w]atching the entire Ivy League slowly turn into the University of Phoenix.”

Over the past two decades, as educational technology advanced in sophistication and effectiveness, decision makers at selective residential schools merely tinkered with digital learning.

. . .

Elite colleges and universities took advantage of commercial tools for delivering readings and assignments and taking attendance, but generally continued with sage-on-the-stage, small seminar discussions or other conventional delivery models for their core operations.  Reforms centered on increasing student engagement, but elite colleges and universities continued to expect their students to pay for full-time enrollment, move into dormitories, attend class in person and stay for four or more years.

But the hard fact is that this delivery format is an extraordinarily expensive way of purveying college degrees.  Americans’ obsession with residential education as the sine qua non of academic excellence is a big part of what makes higher education roughly twice as costly per student here than it is in European countries.  It also categorically excludes those whose life circumstances make them unable to leave their family homes and forgo paid work to attend college.

. . .

We recognize that residential programs provide a great deal more to students than mere coursework.  They are relationship machines, generating countless friendships, intimate partnerships and professional network ties.  That machinery doesn’t translate easily to digital life, which is why residential-campus students, when told to complete their coursework on computers, feel cheated out of much of the value associated with residential college attendance.

. . .

Well-resourced institutions should use their capital and scientific endowments to create and model best practices:  building best-in-class online learning platforms and then adopting and promoting research-based approaches to iterate and improve on instructional design.

. . .

Might young people be encouraged to live at home and take courses online for an initial period after high school, or perhaps to finish their studies digitally while embedded as interns and apprentices with potential employers?”

During the NNN, various educational programs may mostly go back to what they previously were doing with some additional online education, or they may make more fundamental changes in their educational theories and techniques.


Decisions in the CNN period are likely to have long-term effects during the NNN period.  Some “interim” changes will become institutionalized for the indefinite future and others will not.  There may or may not be decreased polarization, increased communitarian social policy, and increased online education.

It’s easy to imagine that there would be increased consensus or continued bitter political polarization.  The US government may provide for broad New Deal / Great Society social protections or a more limited “safety net.”  Colleges and universities may make fundamental changes in the structures of their programs or they may maintain traditional models.

This describes polar opposites as if on a single dimension, but the reality is likely to be somewhere in the middle and more complex with substantial variation.

What will happen is not inevitable.  It is contingent on people’s attitudes and actions, individually and collectively.

6 thoughts on “The Next New Normals – in General”

  1. At the beginning of the pandemic, I wrote a series of posts speculating about the “new normals” during and after the pandemic.

    Here are two recent essays about how the new normal involves less commuting and more remote work (for those who can work remotely).

    One is by NYT columnist Farhad Manjoo, “Office Workers Don’t Hate the Office. They Hate the Commute. Don’t expect a race back to the workplace if it remains a hassle to get there.”

    This inspired NYT columnist Paul Krugman to write, “Working From Home and Realizing What Matters. Reduced commuting won’t raise G.D.P. So what?”

    Take a look.

  2. Scottish mediator Charlie Woods wrote a blog post entitled, “A Change is Gonna Come,” in which he quotes another post stating: “It feels as though this may be one of those rare times, like the creation of the welfare state after the Second World War, when major change suddenly becomes possible; our challenge is how to make the most of the current moment.”

  3. I read through Mr. Leonhardt’s piece. It’s hard for me to imagine what life will look like after the pandemic but I can appreciate his thoughts. While the virus and it’s aftermath of death and debilitation (I am thinking of how viruses stay in the body and wreak their havoc over a lifetime) are horrific, I am wondering if humankind can learn some lessons here and how we can change our lifestyles for the better. I hope so.

  4. Here’s a Washington Post article about work in the new normal. “The post-pandemic workplace will hardly look like the one we left behind. Contact-tracing apps for co-workers, elevator ‘safe zones,’ infrared body temperature scanners — businesses are beginning to reimagine office spaces after the coronavirus.”

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