A homemade sign reads, “We are all in this together.”
The words pack a powerful punch. They do not show fear or hide from it. They seek to convey hope and courage. They proclaim a universal truth: we need each other if we are to deal with loss and tragedy in our lives. Sometimes the words soar like flares shot into the universe of common good to be seen by those who might help. They might even grab the attention of those in positions of power who might put aside their own self-interests and get involved.
With the COVID-19 pandemic in full force, the flares are firing in all directions. The decisions that are being made in response, at this moment and in the months to come, will have profound implications for how we experience life years after this crisis has passed.
There is deep respect for the healthcare professionals, emergency responders, researchers, and scientists who are on the front lines. We have faith that they will act in our best interests to conquer this deadly virus. On the economic front, however, there is far less confidence that the decisions made on our behalf will flatten the curve of despair that has been rising for decades.
The pandemic has shown zero regard for jobs, investment, and monetary policies—the rules used for responding to the Great Recession just do not apply. That is probably a blessing because the public’s memory banks are deplete of reassuring examples of how their families benefited from that crisis, and many have good reason to doubt that they will come out better on the other side of this one.
Ode to the Boomer’s Dream
The basis for the twentieth century version of the American Dream relied on implied trust that a person could succeed if they had a good education, full-time job with benefits, and a house that would increase in value. That shared belief was destroyed by the Great Recession and never took root in the psyche of the Millennial generation.
As children and young adults, the Millennial generation experienced heartache when homes, some of which they grew up in, foreclosed, and felt the burden of a parent(s) needing to hold down multiple jobs, most in the service and retail sectors, to make ends meet. Many were told not to give up on the Dream, so they followed an outdated formula for success, were buried under student loan debt, and scrambled for jobs to pay rent and bills. Buying a house became nearly impossible for many: a dream deferred.
The public watched on the sidelines as businesses reacted to sluggish financial markets by wringing every dollar of profit out of the bottom line like droplets from a tightly twisted towel and as our federal government developed reactionary policies around a “too big to fail” philosophy that bailed out the financial and automotive industries while directing money to public infrastructure projects. Short-term profits and short-sighted, divisive politics drove the American Dream right off the cliff.
Certainly, in the decade since the Great Recession, incredibly positive cultural, educational, and societal developments occurred as well, but the foundation for widespread economic prosperity—that is to say, our national standard of living—was weakened.
Finding Prosperity ‘On the Other Side’
Will we fare better coming out of a pandemic-induced calamity? What will our world look like?
This much is certain: corporations and the wealthy will adjust to market changes to earn profits. Whether politicians respond in an enabling and reactive manner, as was the case with the Great Recession, or proactively as happened after the Great Depression, will have staggering consequences.
The last thing we need is to return to a “normal” that was broken. This time around, we can do better if our decisions and actions are vetted against criteria for standing up a new American Dream. The focus must be a) achieving greater equity that helps re-establish a middle class; b) prioritizing health and education as the most reasonable assurance for avoiding hardships and poverty; and, c) creating vibrant, healthy places to live and work.
The way to do this is to follow the money. We need to check, balance, and leverage private investment for common purposes. If we understand profit motives of investors and businesses post COVID-19, we can be proactive and positively influence how and where we live, while building in safeguards to ensure that our citizens are in the best position to prosper. In this way, we can redefine the American Dream.
For example, employers once hesitant about remote working have now adjusted to it and will invest in new technologies to enable it. That will have an impact on the built environment and provide new opportunities in remote areas as the gig economy matures, depressing office markets, and increasing demand for out-of-home shared work and life experiences. Public actions will be required to leverage these developments for a greater social impact, including enacting tax code changes to ensure improved, high-speed broadband coverage for every household and achieving universal childcare.
Other examples of how this might work post COVID-19 are shown below.
We face a very long and painful period of economic reactivation.
The universal march towards progress and prosperity teaches us that the world will continue down a path towards density and greater urbanization. We need to be together to succeed. Social distancing cannot become the new norm, but rather a highly infrequent and necessary protocol in times of emergency.
On the health front, let’s hope that our leaders will competently manage the next pandemic with timely data, established disaster and resiliency procedures, adequate medical supplies, and with the intellect and confidence that comes from appreciation of scientific discovery and endeavor.
Beyond this, on the economic front, we must heed the wisdom of “We are all in this together.” We must support public officials, private sector executives, and economic development leaders, who have the empathy, passion, and a sense of urgency to help us check, balance, and leverage profit motives to rebuild and protect a new American Dream.