2021 is when lockdown will stop mattering

12.06, Tuesday 29 Dec 2020

Over lockdown, one concept that has stuck in my head is short and long-term adjustments. (Here in the UK, we’ve been in one form of lockdown or another since mid March. With the new variant, that’s not ending any time soon.)

It’s from a post applying ideas from economics to epidemiology:

long-run elasticities of adjustment are more powerful than short-run elasticities. In the short run you socially distance, but in the long run you learn which methods of social distance protect you the most. Or you move from doing “half home delivery of food” to “full home delivery of food” once you get that extra credit card or learn the best sites.

Personally: Short-term adjustments mean working from my sofa using Zoom, and pausing the usual round of coffees and chatting (that’s how I find new ideas and also new work).

Long-term means moving the house around and setting up a desk; sorting out the lighting; opening my calendar on Wednesdays for Unoffice Hours… but also domestic things like using the time freed up from the commute to get into baking. All to the point that if somehow I could magically go back to the old way, I’m not sure I would.

You can see this happening with restaurants. Short-term means staff are furloughed and orders go to pick-up only. Long-term: well, we’re beginning to see hints of it. Yes, some restaurants are closing, but others are offering part-cooked meals for delivery and building a customer base that way, amazing food that you could never get at home before.

We’ll be in lockdown deep into next year. Even then, how long will it take before we stop wearing masks, or no longer require negative covid tests before flying?

The long-term adjustments will kick in way before then.

What I wonder about mundane business activities.

I can imagine that something like, say, the employee onboarding process has been ad hoc, time consuming, and error prone for the last few months. But in 2021, someone in HR will get round to making it streamlined and efficient – totally optimised for remote working.

At which point, will there ever be an incentive to switch back?

Here’s how I think about it. First you cope and then you adapt. The kicker: once you adapt, you may not want to go back.

We’ll get a PS5 with the cash we save from not going to the pub, and set up a sweet home office instead of commuting, and organise home deliveries instead of a weekend visit to the supermarket.

And then we’ll realise that we have a new group of friends on PlayStation, and working from home means that we’ve gotten to know the folks in the local takeaway for lunch, and grocery deliveries means we have time for a run on Sundays instead.

Maybe my phone gets good at automatically monitoring my social distancing budget, better than counting steps or calories even, and it turns out that, with this new lifestyle, I have more than enough for friends and family.

And gradually lockdown stops impeding any of the activities we actually want to do, and even if it ends, we wouldn’t go back.

Lockdown will end not because the restrictions lift, but because they stop mattering.

So I think 2021 is the year that long-term adjustments really gather pace, and it’ll be interesting to see, personally and for the economy at large, what that means. How will travelling change? What kinds of new companies will thrive? Like I said in May, there is no After.

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