On November 17, 2021

The “new norm” is not a return to the past

What citizens, workers have learned in the pandemic and what it means

By Kevin Ellis

Editor’s note: Kevin Ellis, a partner in Ellis Mills, a communications consulting firm in Montpelier.

We are not returning to normal.

Almost two years since the start of the Covid pandemic. What have we learned? And what is to come?

I think we have learned that the bones of American democracy are brittle from years of neglect and underinvestment. Not just roads, bridges and water pipes. But voting, civic education, trust and empathy.

We have learned that a majority of politicians will do almost anything to get reelected and drive their agenda — witness any number of Republicans who decried Trump and now seek his blessing while terming the Jan. 6 coup attempt as some sort of tourist visit.

We have learned that American capitalism — with all its power to generate wealth and develop life-changing technologies — is failing to do so for most of the country.

We have learned that a good portion of the country refuses to learn from history and examine our past, much of it shameful — if it contradicts some fuzzy notion of a white European country settled by righteous Christians.

And we have learned a media controlled by a few very large and powerful corporations does not serve democracy. That too-often-used phrase “the media’’ includes The New York Times and The Washington Post. But it also includes NBC (owned by Comcast), CBS (owned by Viacom), and Fox (owned by the Murdoch family).

It is so tempting to rely on these outlets to defend democracy and challenge the party line from government and corporate America. But they so often do not. Why? Because in the end, they are just corporations that maximize profits for shareholders and investors. That’s the business model. And it is dangerous to forget that.

In the end, these companies want as many eyeballs as possible watching their shows and reading their newspapers so they can sell advertising for beer, Viagra and cars. That’s it. There is no greater purpose.

We have also learned that Mark Zuckerberg and the people at Facebook will stop at nothing to achieve global hegemony. When I complained about Facebook’s evils the other day, a smart young person brought me up short.

“Zuckerburg is just doing what the system encourages him to do,’’ she said. “He is a coder in the end. And he will keep doing that to attract as many followers as possible. That’s what the system tells him to do.’’

I agree. And now comes the part where the government steps in to protect people, especially young people, from mendacious titans like Zuckerberg.

Whether it is Trump, Zuckerberg, or Big Pharma, it is “we’’ the government that brings order, rules and justice to these outfits that are destroying democracy.

And by government, I mean the agencies set up to umpire the rules of democracy — the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Department of Justice, and the Federal Trade Commission. These agencies were set up to make sure capitalism is fair for everyone. After 40 years of attack by Republicans trying to increase corporate profits at every turn, these agencies have atrophied. Whether they can be revived to make a fair deal for all Americans is an open question.

Where are we going? Not back to the office, that’s for sure.

As Emma Goldberg wrote so well in The Times last Sunday: The 23-year-old wants to run the office.

Most corporate CEOs and heads of organizations want their employees to return to the office. Why? Because they don’t trust them. I see this dynamic all the time. Jamie Dimon at JP Morgan wants those employees back at the corporate tower in Manhattan. That’s the model and it’s been that way since the office and factory were invented. The boss wants his people under his thumb.

But we aren’t going back. Why? Let my son, the owner of a podcast studio in NYC, explain.

“People have leverage now,’’ he says. “They have the ability to make a living in lots of different ways. At the core is the internet and all of its tools that allow people to make money in different ways.’’

Covid has taught us you can work from anywhere. The internet has made it easier than ever to run a business. Why go back to the office cubicle and the 45-minute commute? It works for some. But for so many, it is a relic.

As NYU Professor Scott Galloway said this week, 4.3 million people quit their jobs last August, more than any time in U.S. history. What is going on here? This trope that people are fat and lazy with government handouts doesn’t make sense.

I think the Help Wanted signs are the result of an economy that since 1980 has relentlessly pursued efficiency and profits over quality of life and the values of a democratic society. So in the name of profits, we shipped jobs overseas and created crummy jobs at home that paid badly and treated people worse.

Would you go work at Dunkin Donuts today? Not me. These young people have options. And they are using them. I know a woman who owns a floral business and a playdate business that brings toddlers and their caregivers together through song and dance. In a previous generation, she would have started at McDonald’s and might now be temping at some corporate job while balancing family and work in a country where Congress refuses to pass paid family leave legislation.

Let’s face it, Dunkin Donuts is a crummy job. And people have better things to do with their lives than make minimum wage for The Man.

This is a blunt and sometimes scary message from this next generation to the adults who created this economy: “We don’t want your job. It’s badly paid and doesn’t serve my interests and treats me badly. I am going somewhere else.’’

You may not like that. But it’s the reality of today.

What to do?

Employers need to wake up to the new reality. Do you want high-quality workers dedicated to the mission? Do you have to make your workplace the best in class, a place where people want to go? You have to care about the people who work at your business — really care. You have to pay them a livable wage. There is no going back to normal.

There is no going back to corporate offices unless the CEO orders you back. The best places to work will ask their employees what they want and deliver it. That is the lesson and harsh reality of our new Covid life.

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