According to the Cambridge Dictionary a reflection is “the image of something in a mirror or on any reflective surface” and I felt this was a good place to start this post as 2020 has forced us to face some uncomfortable personal experiences at the same time as exposing social flaws and challenges we had perhaps hoped to keep swept under a carpet of denial and delusion.
2020 is a year everyone alive who is of an age where memory kicks in for the long term will look back and say something along the lines of ‘do you remember what you were doing when the pandemic first struck?’. Rather like other iconic events that rocked the world from wars, to deaths, to assassinations, natural and man-made disasters, there seems to be a collective understanding that these things have changed something fundamental.
But what I notice about all these things is that they have a negative quality about them, something that definitely doesn’t make my heart sing or fill me with joy and wonder. And perhaps this says something rather fundamental about the nature of being human, now more than ever. I notice when I talk with friends and relatives, we often end up musing on the things that turned out ‘wrong’, rather than on the many more things that turned out ‘right’. And it whilst there is a need to avoid being too Pollyanna-esque, it is important not to be too like Eeyore either.
This year has provided evidence aplenty that life is a mixture of the highs and the lows. Even in the midst of depression we can still smile and sing and clap our way into a happier state. At the beginning of the year when COVID-19 was first recognised to be something more than flu and had the potential to be apocalyptic we pulled together across the globe to reduce the spread and its impact.
The effect on economies around the world was apparent immediately and many governments were forced to put in measures to ensure the population had some degree of financial stability – some did this better than others, but that’s the nature of government. Even so, many were out of work and unsure when they would get another job. Others were furloughed and unsure they would return to the roles they had. Together with the increase in people in the UK seeking help from foodbanks these further exacerbated the vast divide that exists between different regions simply because their local economies were built on different sectors.
Through it all, already marginalised groups suffered more than others. As a result, it is hard to pinpoint whether someone from the black community is more likely to die from COVID-19 simply because of their race than the fact that this group is over-represented in poorer and more socially disadvantaged areas.
And the impact on women has been stark. Despite everything, they still shoulder the vast majority of childcare and household responsibilities and if they were working from home were more likely to be the ones juggling home schooling with their employment responsibilities. They are more likely to work in part-time jobs in sectors like retail and hospitality – both significantly hit by the many national lockdowns around the world. Several women I know who ran their own businesses gave it up because it was just too hard, and that wasn’t always because their business couldn’t trade, it was because the pressure was immense.
Working from home
Despite this, there are some sectors of the economy that have thrived. The IT industry, where I work, has boomed as companies ran for the ‘safety’ of collaboration and communication suites like Microsoft 365, Google workspace and Facebook workplace. Where I had spent many long hours in the past trying to persuade CEO’s that the move to the cloud would be beneficial, all of a sudden I didn’t have to. They came to me instead asking for it. And now the world of office work has changed and will never be the same as it was.
We can argue whether this is a good or a bad thing, and like everything else in life it will be a bit marmite. I love working from home, but I do miss my colleague’s presence and the daily ‘discussion’ about whether the air conditioning should be on or off. I am fortunate that I get to choose where I work, I can be office based or home based and to be honest the benefits of being at home do outweigh those of the office. I can walk my dogs as well as get more done. And I’ve radically overhauled how I do my job. In the past I would have spent days on site with clients taking them through decision making workshops. That’s not possible in the Teams world – it’s just too tiring. I’ve had to come up with innovative ways to get the information I need in advance of much shorter meetings to make the decision. It has certainly stretched the little grey cells.
Environmentally, I’m giving back too. I drive 95% less than I did before the first UK lockdown in March. And, whilst I’m waiting to see what happens, I’m even considering if we really do need two cars. Steve is a key worker and works for a bank so like me has been working right through. He needs a car to get to work as there is no bus to Dorchester, but do I need one? I’m not so sure. But as things are moving so quickly, I’ll wait until late in 2021 before making any decisions.
Of course, the flip side of working from home, being furloughed or losing your job is the impact on mental well-being. Charities working in this sector are all reporting increases in the number of people presenting and being supported. And it’s evident through all levels of the education sector too where a return to school was deemed to be less harmful than the chance of catching the virus. In October I started a short-term contract (in addition to working part-time for Silversands) at the University of Bath and observing how students were living through this really brought home to me how much they are missing out on in their University life. It’s so different from my own experience and with the best will in the world a digital experience is never going to replicate being with other people in the flesh. The fallout from all this enforced isolation is likely to hang around for many years to come and will require a degree of personal resilience that most haven’t developed.
Outside of IT, many people moved to ordering online. And this has had two impacts; the massive uplift in profits of organisations that were already under paying local treasuries because they are ‘off-shore’ in some ways, and an accelerated decline in the high-street as we know it. But in this we have to look to our own behaviour before we throw stones; if I make a decision to order online, I am choosing that over the high-street and I am adding another nail to its coffin. If we want something to thrive, we must support it, we can’t just assume it will always be there because without use things get rusty and eventually crumble.
Perhaps though, the area that concerns me most about the wholesale move to a digitally mediated way of life is the millions of people who are digitally disadvantaged. Whether that’s by lack of devices, the cost of Internet access, physically or lack of skills. According to the Lloyds Bank Big Conversation report, the gap between those who are comfortably digital and those for whom the internet and its benefits remain out of reach, unfamiliar or frightening has been convincingly exposed. And unless we address this through education and in the workplace, this divide will only get worse. To highlight the scale of the problem, the report showed that a massive 17% of people in the North East of England lacked basic digital skills needed for everyday life.
Friends and family
I visited Mum and my sister three times this year, normally I try to visit every six weeks or so. We keep in touch by phone and at the beginning had fun with video calling on Facebook; but I’m not a great Facebook fan and am rarely on the network so eventually that petered out. The thing I miss most is giving Mum a hug, telling her I love her is great, but it’s not the same as showing it.
Some friends were unable to meet up because they were shielding for most of the year and we have a regular Zoom catchups. And with others I indulged in long walks on sunny days in the hills and countryside of Dorset.
I don’t know what 2021 will bring. I do know however that there will be no return to ‘normal’. The world around us has changed, in some ways for the better and whilst some jobs have gone forever, new jobs we never knew existed are emerging. Whilst many are suffering, many more are discovering the joys of a simpler life.
In the long term I believe that 2020 has been a turning point, and one that will ultimately prove to be positive (even though it doesn’t feel like that right now); and the still, small voice inside tells me we will come to a better balance with ourselves, with others, with nature and the environment.