Long Reads

Life after coronavirus: experts predict what our ‘new normal’ will be

The coronavirus pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways over the past seven weeks. But what could life look like once lockdown ends, and what will be our ‘new normal’? Stylist investigates.

We’ve been in lockdown since 23 March, and many of us are feeling restless for change.

Last night, Boris Johnson laid out his roadmap of plans for us to begin leaving lockdown, with each step being described as conditional. And Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has previously stated that when the UK does begin to ease out of lockdown, we will be moving into a “new normal” rather than making a sudden return to our lives pre-coronavirus.

And the world is changing so rapidly that this time last week feels like years in the past. Over the last few weeks alone, we have seen unprecedented changes to every part of our lives.

But how could these changes impact us in the long term? Could temporary laws lead to bigger cultural shifts further down the road? And are any of our new habits here to stay?

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Below, Stylist speaks to experts in housing, workers’ rights, the economy, workplace culture, dating and mental health in order to better understand the possible long-term implications of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Life after coronavirus: workers’ rights

Lydia Hayes, professor of law at the University of Kent, describes the coronavirus as a leveller. People from all kinds of backgrounds have tested positive for the virus – from political figures, to our own friends and neighbours, to celebrities. But on the flipside, Hayes points out that the virus has also “put inequality into sharp relief”.

If more and more people become reliant on government support like Universal Credit, the public’s perception of the welfare system might shift.

This is clear when we look at who is able to work from their living rooms to stay safe, and who has to brave the London Underground, for example. Or when we contrast the circumstances of permanent workers with those in a less secure position.

“We’re seeing that, while we’ve all got the challenge of staying safe, some people are in a better position than others because of the type of contract they’re employed on or because of the patterns of their work or their rate of pay,” she tells Stylist, adding that it’s now clearer than ever that people employed by workplaces with trade union agreements have better redundancy protections.

Hayes says that if more and more people become reliant on government support such as Universal Credit, the public’s perception of the welfare system might shift. She says that people will need to start thinking: “Is this good enough for me? And if it’s not good enough for me, is it good enough for anyone else?”

Similarly, Hayes hopes that a sudden change in the value society places on the work done by supermarket staff and delivery drivers could alter the way we view wages.

”I think this will start to shift the debate away from simply ‘What level is the minimum wage?’ to ‘What should the minimum wage be used for?” she says, asking: “Should it be used for a huge group of workers on whom we rely enormously to keep us safe?”

Hayes hopes that displays of inequality like this could eventually lead to some kind of positive change: “I think that one of the fallouts of this crisis is going to be a greater recognition that we need a fairer system.”

Life after coronavirus: office culture

For most people in professional jobs, social distancing has meant a total shift to working from home – something many employees would have liked the opportunity to do pre-Covid-19, but hadn’t been allowed to. If Zoom meetings and Slack discussions go off without a hitch, could the concept of the home office be here to stay?

Jamie Notter, a Washington DC-based workplace culture consultant, thinks it’s possible. “It makes sense to me that if [employees] can work from home and still maintain the same kind of productivity, they’re going to wonder why they [should] come into the office,” he says.

However, Notter thinks that more people working remotely could also expose “cracks” in some companies’ cultures. “If you have a culture where people don’t deal with their conflict very well, and you move to remote working, then that’s going to get elevated,” he explains.

The implications of office workers no longer needing to flood into the centre of cities like London and Manchester every day could be huge. Adam Steel, a senior strategic foresight writer at trend forecaster The Future Laboratory, says that it could even be an opportunity to “reboot suburbia, rural villages and the countryside”.

“Big city offices would be used less, and could become more like flagship stores or flagship offices, which employees might visit a few times a year for whole-company events,” he says. “Businesses may then shift to having smaller, flexible office spaces, or sections of co-working spaces dotted around the country in a far more distributed way.” 

Life after coronavirus: mental health

In a period where our safety – and the safety of our loved ones – is under threat, anxiety can feel like the new norm. But what will the longterm impact of living with intense uncertainty and isolation be?

Marjorie Wallace, CEO of SANE, tells Stylist that the mental health charity has already had calls from those struggling to access treatments. “We know from our callers that it’s very hard to get the help they need because so [many resources] have been diverted – for good reasons – into the pandemic,” she says.

anxiety
Calls to suicide prevention charity CALM have been “dramatically increasing” throughout the pandemic.

Simon Gunning, CEO of suicide prevention charity CALM, says that calls to the organisation’s helpline have been “dramatically increasing” throughout the pandemic. His fear is that the mental health impact, and wider social effects, of the outbreak could lead to more suicides. “We know that financial pressures lead to isolation, and then self-medication, and then suicide very often,” he tells me.

Both Wallace and Gunning urge people to call the SANE or CALM helplines if they or someone they know is struggling with the crisis. 

Life after coronavirus: the economy

The government has pledged to cover 80% of some workers’ salaries. But, while this is a promising start, new measures don’t yet cover all the costs that are needed for an out-of-commission business to stay afloat during the crisis.

What will the knock-on effect of widespread business closures and lay-offs be? What happens when more people than ever are forced to claim benefits? Are we heading for another recession like the 2008 financial crisis? We asked John Bryson, professor of enterprise and economic geography at the University of Birmingham, this final question, and he answered that we were already heading for a recession before the virus began.

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“Covid-19 tips us further into that recession, so we will definitely have a recession or an economic downturn of some form,” he explains. “The question is whether it’s just a dip and then you come out of it quite rapidly, or whether it’s something much longer.” This, he adds, depends on how long it is before things go “slightly more back to normal”.

Dave Innes, head of economics at the Rowntree Foundation says that if businesses choose to take up the government’s salary retention scheme, this could be a massive factor in helping to maintain stability for British workers. “There’s a role for businesses to make sure they actually keep people in work and help people out, instead of laying more people off and increasing their economic insecurity,” he tells Stylist.

We might be shifting towards becoming a cashless society, paying for goods such as coffee using only debit or credit cards.

Innes warns that if lots of people are forced out of work and into the welfare system, there could be a “huge cost to the economy” and that it could “take a really long time to bounce back”.

One other possible knock-on effect of our isolation could be the total demise of cash, points out Professor Bryson. “In certain stores now, you hand over a note and they look at you and say ‘No, no, no, we don’t want that – we want you to use contactless because it’s safer for us’,” he points out. “So this might be a shift towards a cashless society.”

Life after coronavirus: relationships and dating

Let’s be honest, Love Island’s Casa Amor can no longer be called the ultimate relationship test. With cohabiting couples now stuck indoors together 24/7 (in some cases with kids who are off school) and couples who live separately now in long-distance relationships, most of us are going to have to adapt our behaviour. As for casual dating, it’s all but cancelled.

Ammanda Major, head of service quality and clinical practice at Relate, a charity that provides relationship counselling, emphasises that we can’t know what the future holds for our relationships. “The potential is that people will need to develop better ways of communicating how they’re feeling,” she tells Stylist. Major adds that the additional economic concerns many people are experiencing now are likely to add strain to relationships, even those that are “very healthy and functioning”.

going-on-a-date
We may well adapt our approach to dating in the new world.

When it comes to dating, she says it’s possible we’ll adapt our approach to the new world. Many people across the UK are now speaking to dating app matches on video chat – a habit she thinks could influence our approach even after the pandemic is over. “Because people currently have to look for different ways of dating, when we come through the other side of all of this, people may retain the new ways of doing things or new habits that they’ve picked up,” she says.

However, Major does have two warnings on this point. The first is that circumstance may lead to people doing more sexual things online, and that the same privacy and safety concerns apply here as they always have. The second is that getting to know someone digitally is “very different from actually being with them and noticing things about them that you perhaps miss” when you’re chatting virtually.

Life after coronavirus: housing

The government has introduced new housing laws to boost tenants’ rights in an effort to minimise uncertainty for those affected by the virus. These measures include bringing forward an already-announced ban on no-fault evictions (this was previously introduced in Scotland before the outbreak began), laws ensuring tenants can’t be evicted if they miss rent due to the virus and three-month mortgage holidays for affected home-owners.

Peter Kemp, professor of public policy at Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government, tells Stylist that renters in England are in a more precarious situation than those in Scotland and Germany, where all rental contracts have to be indefinite by law (rather than, say, six or 12 months). “I don’t know whether the government will do more on the private rental front – it needs to,” he says. He adds that it needs to be made easier for landlords to get into the housing market, in order to keep a supply of affordable rented housing.

With a recession would come a fall in house prices, he says, along with an increase in the number of people claiming housing benefit. On that note, he advises anyone who is struggling to check if they’re eligible for this payment (which forms part of Universal Credit) as people on low wages and the self-employed can sometimes claim it and may not realise this. 

Life after coronavirus: climate change

One positive aspect of the coronavirus pandemic is that a huge drop in air pollution and CO2 levels has been recorded in cities across the world, as workers stay home and transport levels are drastically reduced.

New York has seen a drop of nearly 50% of carbon emissions being released from cars, in comparison to this time last year, while there has been an estimated drop of 25% in energy use and emissions in China over a two week period.

However, while these current changes are hugely positive for climate change, it’s unlikely they will last once the pandemic is over.

If you’re struggling with your mental health during the coronavirus pandemic, you can contact the following organisations for information and support:

CALM

Visit thecalmzone.net, call 0800 58 58 58 or talk to someone through their web chat service from 5pm-midnight every day

SANE

Visit sane.org.uk, or call 0300 304 7000 from 4.30pm to 10.30pm every day

Mind

Visit mind.org.uk, call 0300 123 3393, text 86463 or email info@mind.org.uk

The Samaritans

You can call the Samaritans on 116123 for free 24/7

This article was originally published on 20 March 2020

Images: Getty, Unsplash

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