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Surviving 2021


I’ve been saying to my two daughters and my granddaughter that they should all be recording their experience of the pandemic. Generations yet unborn will want to know from them what it was like, how they coped and what did it change.

I’m going to take a mighty risk and make a few predictions of things to come.

The first and most obvious change is that people who can work from home, will. Expect to see serious change in future in the way lawyers, accountants, publishers, journalists and similar professionals all work. Why spend two hours a day commuting to an office when you could be at home doing something more important, interesting and useful? My daughter Anouchka, for instance, conducts her whole psychoanalysis practice via Skype and Zoom. She’s never been busier. She receives commissions by telephone, and sends her Guardian articles as e-mail attachments, never once going near The Guardian’s office. My other daughter Tamara regularly works several days a week from home as a lawyer.

Clearly not everybody can tele-commute or whatever you want to call working via the internet. Mechanics, builders, taxi drivers and cleaners are still going to have to make their way to garages, construction sites, metered cars and dirty buildings. But for anybody who can work from home, count your blessings and get on with it. Your position is enviable.

As a corollary, there will be a lot less business travel. I saw an airline CEO interviewed on CNN a week or so ago, and I thought he was blindly optimistic. He informed us that after the last great global crash in 2008 things quickly returned to business as usual for airlines, with business travel still their most profitable line. He predicted that the same would happen in 2021 or 2022. I think he is deluded. We’ve all learned new habits. We’ve all had to meet on Zoom, or FaceTime, or Skype, and we’ve grown to like it, never mind tolerate it. I study French with a live teacher via Skype. I send her my homework as an e-mail attachment. I talk to my daughters on FaceTime. I miss hugging them, but I’m still seeing them and still talking to them. Ditto my agent in Sydney (who probably doesn’t want to be hugged by me anyway … hi Fiona!)

The internet has gained hugely. It’s now more than 20 years since I set foot in a travel agency. For all of those 20 years I’ve bought all my airline tickets online, booked hotels online, done just about all of my banking online, shopped online, read newspapers and magazines online and even watched films online. I send my books to publishers as e-mail attachments, correct proofs by e-mail, even approve covers by e-mail. Most of my communication is by e-mail. As a result of all this, the various lockdowns and isolations have made little or no difference to my life. The internet has rendered the pandemic survivable.

I wonder if the restaurant trade will go back to its former glory? The whole thing got really silly, with bad-tempered chefs having their own TV shows, and the pornography of food replacing cheesecake in magazines. For me, sex was less fattening, and more fun. Maybe restaurants will switch permanently to takeaway, and up-market takeaway will be the New Big Thing? For the record, the best restaurant within 100 kilometres of where I live is Christopher Coutanceau in La Rochelle (two Michelin stars) and he is doggedly continuing his policy of no delivery, no takeaway. But his brother Gregory, who owns three top-ranking rival restaurants in La Rochelle, bombards me daily with e-mails extolling the virtues of his takeaway services, and has even offered to take over from me the tedium of cooking Christmas dinner. I can order a takeaway from him instead. As I write, tomorrow’s Christmas dinner arrived as a takeaway (not from Gregory but from an Oléron restaurant ... sorry Greg). We had only to sign for it, and pay by cheque! See the picture at the top for a sneak preview of tomorrow's pudding, held aloft by my wife Roslyn.

What about shopping, I wonder? We know that Amazon is booming, and online shopping is expanding faster than ever, at the expense of High Street shops and even the big retail chains. What would Christmas have been like without online shopping? I can buy friends and offspring presents online from a source in their own country, and they are delivered next day gift-wrapped and with a nice message inside. Will we stop doing that? Not likely, I’d say.

That, if you like, is the good news. Now comes the bad. I’ve noticed a pattern in my Christmas and New Year e-mails: my correspondents endlessly conclude by saying thanks to 2020 for going away, and good riddance. The implication is that things will probably get better in 2021, on the ground that they can’t really get any worse. I’m not so sure.

In offering this, I am mindful of a brilliant interview between the American late night TV presenter Stephen Colbert and The New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. Krugman is best known as an academic economist, and he carries some authority in that field because he won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2008. “People must constantly ask you,” said Colbert, “if you have any share tips, and they must also ask you what’s going to happen with the economy.” Krugman agreed. They do ask him exactly those questions. “What I always tell them,” Krugman continued, “is that I don’t know.” After a modest pause he added: “And nor does anybody else.” With that in mind, here goes!

I can’t help feeling that we are headed for an economic depression to equal anything our forefathers saw in 1929 and the 1930s. If you disagree, think about the following. Suppose you own or manage a hotel or restaurant that has been famously successful until the Covid-19 crisis hit. You’ve been shuttered for months. Now, wonder of wonders, the vaccine has worked and governments around the world have declared business as usual. You are now free to go back to how things were, yes? Will you? I doubt it.

As a manager, your most likely decision will be to open your doors amid as much fanfare as you can humanly muster, then wait to see what happens. Meanwhile, you will ask your most talented and important employees to come back to work to meet the anticipated demand, while telling the also-rans that you’ll be back in touch. Then … you’ll watch. If your restaurant is packed, as it was before, you can call up the also-rans (whom you’ve trained at your expense) and ask them to get going. If it’s not packed – and, see above, people will have moved on in predictable and unpredictable ways – then you’ll decide not to call them and they’ll have no job. Which scenario do you think is the most likely? If you think it’s no job for the also-rans, then you’re with me in predicting a huge depression. And the same logic will apply to jobs in retail, in journalism, in the law, in publishing, in accountancy and in banking and many more sectors that I will leave it to you to name. I would expect to see a white-collar depression in 2021 and 2022 such as the world has never seen before.

As if that wasn’t enough, some things that were true before Covid-19 will still be true after the pandemic is over. China will still be able to deliver manufactured goods more cheaply than the west; India will be able to deliver services cheaper than the west. So where does that leave the number-crunchers in insurance offices in Edinburgh, Scotland? Or the banking geniuses in Wall Street or the City of London? In big trouble, if you ask me (and never mind Brexit, which doesn’t help.)

Educated and sophisticated Chinese are already beginning to innovate in IT, so I’m told. That will be a problem for Silicon Valley, California. International banks are shifting out of London for sites in Paris and Frankfurt, trying to stay a step ahead of Brexit. They are bound to take the opportunity to slim down in the process. More jobs lost. What about Australia, which has solved its economic problems by digging itself up, dumping the result in the holds of ships, and packing the lot off to China? Coal is a dying industry, yet coal exports represent 3.5% of Australia’s GDP. Other holes in the ground account for a total of over 10% of Australian GDP. Whither the Lucky Country when coal is no longer in demand? Or iron ore? Or even gold?

The fact is that all disruption is bad for jobs. The Trumpista promise of a return to manufacturing in developed countries is mindless nonsense. It hasn’t worked, and it won’t. My advice is ultimately gloomy, even if the outlook isn’t always bad. Just get ready for a mighty depression with all that entails: bread lines, food banks, people knocking on your door to ask for work. And get ready to work from home, stay in touch with family via your computer, buy your stuff online, and face the fact that hugging is a luxury. It’s not all that bad (as long as you aren’t lining up at the food bank!)

After all that gloom and doom, as we say in France: bonne année (‘Happy New Year’).

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