AFTER THE CRISIS
Eleven things to be aware of as we emerge from a pandemic
Trying to figure out what the virus will do to us as a nation is a mug’s game. There is so little certainty about what lies ahead. Trends from this point will be volatile, going first one way and then another. And some predictions will be spectacularly wrong.
If we had been holding this webinar during the Spanish flu outbreak straight after the First World War, I would have been saying how the collective trauma of death among so many young people would depress life for years to come. In fact, it was followed by the roaring twenties. That boom happened because household spending had been deferred, technological progress was rapid and a new cultural energy was apparent. Each of these factors are present today, so it’s not impossible historians will look back on our twenties in a way we can’t imagine today – seeing us as people coming out of lockdown who wanted to forget about the past by indulging ourselves.
I don’t think it will be as simple as this, as I intend to show, but we shouldn’t underestimate the hedonism factor.
After a crisis, there is a deep wish in many for things to go back to how they were before, but this won’t happen and it would be a mistake to think it will. Churches can be cautious and conservative and may be especially prone to this thinking.
Here are eleven things we need to be aware of in the wider culture as we evolve beyond this virus.
1. We are more socially contagious than the virus is biologically contagious
We’ve been shaped by a centuries old tradition that we are each an island. I am me and you are someone else. We live by the myth of self-made men and women and Sinatra’s vacuous anthem, I did it my way. That if we want it enough, we can make it. But if we make ourselves, the reverse must be true: we don’t make anyone else. Just don’t have influence over them. Behavioural sciences have started to eat away at this fiction and the virus will help. Yale Professor Nicholas Christakis has been described as having the looks of George Clooney and the brain of Stephen Hawking. I know some of you are now furtively reaching for Google Images, but to save you the bother: he’s married. Epidemiological research done by Christakis when he was at Harvard University and summarised in his book ‘Connected’ shows how our personal influence over the lives, health and well-being of others can reach up to eight thousand people. Helping western Christians understand they are highly infectious in their faith has been an uphill struggle. In showing how contagions spread exponentially from one person, the virus has modelled the Gospel’s reach, offering unexpected inspiration.
2. Caring for the human body generates lasting trust
The London-based political scientist William Davies has done some interesting research into trust levels across the UK’s professions in his book Nervous States. The professions whose trust levels have dipped most in the last decades are those who work round words: politicians, journalists, estate agents. He could have said clergy, but didn’t. The professions whose trust levels have held up best are those who work round the human body: to heal, protect and develop it: doctors, nurses, the armed services, teachers. Words are becoming worthless in a culture saturated with lies. So to build trust, those who work round words must be seen to care about the bodies of other people. In the early Church, the words of the Apostles were supported by care for the bodies of others through acts of healing and charity. Authentic evangelism has to be surrounded by practical demonstrations of love. We can already see a big gulf opening between confidence in politicians and confidence in the medical professions that will make the division between those who use words and those who care for the human body even bigger in the time ahead.
3. There will be a resurgence in bottom-up creativity
Pre-virus research suggested that people join bodies and volunteer less than before. But today we’re faced with a paradox. Offers of volunteering are flooding the UK, showing the innate goodwill of many people. But these offers come at the bleakest moment for charities in our generation. When the emergency passes, will there be a way of harnessing the energy and altruism of a new cohort of volunteers? Some will inevitably slip away, because their offer was not taken up or was contingent on the crisis or the charity they support has ebbed away with the loss of donations. The volunteers who remain are likely to want to volunteer locally, where they can see the difference they make.
There may be a need for newly formed neighbourhood bodies to cope with the latter phases of the virus and with the kind of life that emerges beyond it. Bottom-up creativity will be seen. Churches are highly visible in most communities and can provide a hub from which practical action is co-ordinated. People want to do things. And it’s notable how this often translates into the growth of personal faith as people essentially learn the faith on the job as they volunteer.
4. There will be a growth in the precariat
Last decade saw the emergence of the precariat – a new class of people without any security or certainty in their jobs, homes or lives, undermined by zero hours contracts and unaffordable housing. This class is going to be added to by the economic victims of the coming recession. The impact of a contraction always hits poorer people and younger people harder. But one outcome may hit Generation X. People who lose their jobs in their late 40s and 50s (yes, Gen X really is that old now) won’t easily find replacement jobs in the same field because similar companies will also suffer losses, and in some cases they will be too old to re-train for new jobs. When we talk about generational difference, we have until now assumed the X-ers were just about on the winning side. This will no longer be true for some of them.
There’s been talk about the need to lament what’s happened to us with the virus. The thing about lament in the Church of England is that we tend to do it in highly literate ways, like the rest of our disciple-forming. But where are our resources for those who are doing two or three jobs for little money, are deeply afraid for their lives and exhausted all the time? Ken Loach makes films about them, but they rarely feature in the kind of spirituality that assumes people have time, space and nice views to accompany their prayer life.
5. We may finally get mental health
Anyone who says the virus hasn’t impacted on them emotionally is surely lying. But its impacts vary. Some of those who have been exposed to it, especially on hospital wards and in care homes, are likely to face long-term mental health problems. Some of those locked down face life-changing violence and abuse. Mind, the mental health charity carried out a lockdown poll that found a third of 4000 people surveyed described their mental health as ‘poor or very poor’. Younger generations are more open about their mental health than today’s leaders in society and the Church and when they assume public power, it will be treated in an entirely new way. But the virus may speed this process. The health of our minds might finally become a political priority. There will be a boom in therapy coming out of the virus. Millennials in particular, the cohort we long to reach, value honesty and authenticity. We haven’t been especially honest or open about mental health in the Church, but the virus might change that.
6. Generational fractures will widen and hurt more
We are more aware, if only because our children are telling us, that younger generations are going to be less well off than their parents. This isn’t how it’s supposed to work, but student debts, housing shortages and low-wage jobs are now the norm for people with degrees, where once a degree was the passport to a wealthier life. Climate change has added to the sense of grievance and now the virus will bequeath young people massive levels of public debt. Millennials will have faced two major recessions within a decade of entering the workplace. It is hard to recover from that financially.
The conservative thinker David Willetts coined the idea of a generational covenant, where each generation makes sacrifices to ensure the next is better off than they are. This covenant has been broken and the fracture is widening. At its nastiest, this was shown in the meme #boomercull, suggesting it’s OK if older people die from the virus. The phase of social distancing and other restrictions may deepen the trend for generations not to mix outside their own and lead to more generation-specific communities. Older people, in particular, may need to create them. The Church remains one of the few truly inter-generational bodies in the UK, but has not paid much attention, nationally or locally, to how it might be an agent of healing between the generations in its ministry and its projects.
7. It’s time to re-assess touch
Touch is having a bad time of it. First came the uncovering of systematic sexual abuse, often by people shielded by silent or disbelieving institutions. Then #MeToo arrived, as the scale of rape and sexual harassment of women by powerful, self-entitled men like Harvey Weinstein was revealed. How we use our hands to touch one another has faced some long overdue scrutiny, and the virus has added to this. Consenting people have not been able to hug and kiss one another and this has been a painful blow to well-being. Learning how to use touch in a healing and affirming way is our task. It has always had a role in the healing ministry of the Church. But we need to talk more about what it’s going to look like now, in what has been dubbed the coming ‘low-touch’ culture.
8. Extremists can spot a market opening when truth is on the slide
The 1929 global crash was followed by full-on fascism. The banking collapse in 2008 by a new extremism. The communications agency, Zinc Network, reports that far-right groups in the UK have pivoted with this virus, pumping out propaganda suggesting immigrants are responsible for the virus, that only closed borders will save us and that authoritarian governments are dealing better with the crisis than democratic ones. Nationalist governments are already using the crisis to justify illiberal policies. Hungary, an EU nation, is now ruled by presidential decree, giving Victor Orban the power to jail, via obliging judges, those who ‘spread false information’. Stoking fear of the other has been a theme of the last decade. Good communal spirit isn’t just about looking after our immediate neighbour. The true test of a nation, as Vaclav Havel said, is how well it looks after its minorities.
Connected to extremism is a battle round public truth. The internet is polluted with lies, but it’s not easy to spot a lie when you don’t even know who is telling it and have no way of verifying the source. The virus will be a test for whether we can trust experts again. It is revealing how many people think they know a subject as well as someone who has studied it all their lives, just because they have a search engine and can post their own opinions.
The decay of public truth seems quite abstract, but it isn’t. The idea that there is no objective truth and if anyone claims there is, they are trying to hide a power grab, has spread virally, leaping over university walls into the wider world. People now speak freely and unashamedly about ‘my truth’. What they should be saying is ‘it’s my story’, but we’ve indulged people and it has led to wildly different truth claims about important subjects like climate change, vaccinations and pandemics.
9. The existential is back
The thing we’re all asking is: what kind of effect does a crisis on this scale have on people’s sense of purpose, their sense of God? Google searches don’t lie, and the University of Copenhagen has revealed they give evidence of a large increase in people wanting to know how to pray right now. Figures show much larger numbers viewing online services than attending in person, but these figures need to be interrogated carefully. Is the Nicodemus generation showing up in these analytics? Nicodemus approached Jesus at night because he did not want others to see the encounter. Church is so weird for many people that, even if they wanted to, turning up to a service where they don’t know anyone or have the faintest idea what to do simply isn’t how to spend an easy Sunday morning. Checking it out on a laptop over brunch is much safer. There are suggestions that, despite having the world to choose from, people are sussing out their local churches online.
And the conversations about why God allows viruses seem to be more prevalent in the Church. Outside Church, these questions do not appear to be widely asked. Instead, people are turning to the natural world to get their fix. Isabel Hardman’s recent book on the remedy that nature provides for stress - The Natural Health Service - has been perfectly timed.
People speak little of sin now. Interestingly, shame is bigger – another way in which the world is becoming more eastern than western. The cross has little meaning for those who know nothing of the story. But creation is back, the place St Paul began his defence against the Athenians in Acts 17.
10. Life in second gear is better than the sitcom Friends suggests
In the mid-1990s, the UK finally jettisoned Sunday as a Christianised sabbath. But in an ironic twist, we have just had a truck load of sabbaths dumped on us, demanding self-disciplined, home-based rest. The cumulative effect is bewildering and for those at risk of abuse, devastating. But it has led some to ask: wouldn’t we benefit from slowing down? Where we unplug one day a week to connect with family and friends? There will be huge pressure to make up for lost time when the crisis abates, but to hit the ground walking, not running may be wiser.
Could we manage that? The Church’s leaders are hopeless at this, on the whole. But younger generations seem to want better balance and harmony in their lives than they see in their parents’. The slow movement started some time ago, but it’s moment might have come.
11. Most of what I’ve said may well miss the mark.
The CIA didn’t predict the breach of the Berlin Wall even a day before it happened, so please weigh up what I’ve said, because some of it won’t be right. Of one thing I am sure, this is a generation defining moment. I’ve spent time talking about boomers, X-ers, millennials and iGens, but in the future, they may well put us together and call us Generation Virus.
There are so many more trends we could look at, like the re-shaping of politics and the battle between liberal and authoritarian governments, the deepening surrender to big tech and surveillance capitalism, the momentum the virus will give to robotics and smart cities, the end of the high street, the shaping of apocalyptic culture - but I’ll leave you with these to reflect on:
We are more socially contagious than the virus is biologically contagious
Caring for the human body generates lasting trust
There will be a resurgence in bottom-up creativity
There will be a growth in the precariat
We may finally get mental health
Generational fractures will widen and hurt more
It’s time to re-assess touch
Extremists can spot a market opening when truth is on the slide
The existential is back
Life in second gear is better than the sitcom Friends suggests
Some of what I’ve said may well miss the mark
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