Business Musings: Reclaiming The Future
There’s something hopeful about going to school. School is about the future, no matter what your age. There’s a sense that you’re studying something because you’ll need it at some point. Or you’ll need the degree, and since you need the degree, you need to take these five classes whether you want to or not.
Sure, there’s the day-to-day drudgery of class, online or in person. There’s the day-to-day drudgery of homework and the frustration of testing. There’s a lot about school to dislike, and a lot to love—even in these trying times.
I think it was the return to school in the form of my Spanish class that started a realization for me, and then the calendars, as I mentioned in the last blog, cemented the realization.
The future will come, no matter what.
The problem I’ve been having—that we’ve been having, if the articles I’m seeing and the discussions I’ve been having are any indication—is that the future has been incredibly uncertain.
Not that we wouldn’t have a future. As I said, the future always arrives. Just not for all of us. Like you, I’ve lost a lot of friends and family these past few years, and 2020 has exacerbated the loss. Those people’s stories have ended, but for the rest of us, the stories continue, one day at a time, whether we like it or not.
Long-time readers of this blog know I love a good schedule. In our classes, Dean and I recommend planning one year out, five years out, ten years out. We have a class titled The Decade Ahead, which we started at the beginning of 2020, before we knew what a clusterfuck 2020 would be. As with everything else, we’ve had to pivot a little, because the upcoming decade looks very different from the perspective of August than it did in January.
Rather than being discouraging, the pivot is bracing. Because it shows the students—and reminds us—that the best-laid schemes of mice and men, as the poet Robert Burns said, usually go awry. (or, as he wrote, “Gang aft a-gley”)
I’m old enough to know, though, that there are opportunities in the chaos, and that some will look at the problems and find a better solution for themselves than they would have had if they had stayed in the same old rut.
I’ve been blogging about that.
But I’ve also been blogging about the waiting. Since March here in the U.S., January in other parts of the world, we’ve been waiting to see what will happen with the pandemic. Waiting to figure out what’s happening with the economy. Waiting to see who will win the U.S. election. Waiting to figure out what else 2020 will throw at us (from hurricanes to derechos to wildfires).
Early on, all we could do was get through the changes, one day at a time. For me, in a Spanish class last spring, I did the homework and took the quizzes, watched my poor instructor learn how to use the internet (!), and trudged through each hour. We revamped our schedules at WMG, figured out what we could and couldn’t do if the world continued to go to hell, and worked hard to keep our staff on board.
That schedule gave us a structure. Plus, Dean and I have worked at home for years, so in some ways, the day-to-day routines were similar.
All of that gave our days a framework. We knew what we were doing from minute to minute. We just didn’t know where we were going.
I put my head down, went to work, and occasionally popped up, looked around, grieved or got angry, and then went back into the schedule.
I hadn’t realized I’d lost my grip on the future—especially when my class ended in the spring.
The near future was simple: Get through this. Finish deadlines. Keep writing.
But beyond that? Who knew? Because we had no idea what we were facing.
Now, we do—at least more than we did in the spring.
The chance of a V-shaped recovery—going down hard economically and coming back up just as fast—is long gone. So is the U-shaped recovery.
Because the United States never properly grappled with the virus, unlike almost every other country in the world, we lost control of our economy too. We’re in an L-shaped economic downturn, and our economy will have an impact on the rest of the world, because we always have.
We still don’t have all the pieces. The results of the election will make a difference as to what happens in 2021, which I will get to in a moment.
For those of you who are not Americans, here are the potential results of the U.S. election.
- Donald Trump wins and Republicans retain control of the U.S. Senate.
- Donald Trump wins and Democrats gain control of the U.S. Senate.
- Joe Biden wins and Republicans retain control of the U.S. Senate.
- Joe Biden wins and Democrats gain control of the U.S. Senate.
You’ll note that I’m not mentioning the House of Representatives. The chance of the Democrats losing control of the House is slim, almost none, so isn’t relevant here.
Here’s what will happen in those scenarios. If the first scenario comes true, essentially everything remains the same in the U.S. Expect more chaos and division and no real economic recovery, because these people have proven that they either don’t understand the science (the charitable interpretation) or they believe that it’s okay to lose a lot of lives to obtain herd immunity. If this occurs, the economic downturn we’re suffering through will not be L-shaped. It’ll be stairstepped downward. L following L following L until we reach some kind of bottom.
As I write this, in Nevada, one in ten people are facing eviction. One in ten. We have a 16% unemployment rate. This will go up, if we can’t get a grip on this pandemic. Right now, no one from overseas can (or wants to) travel here. And much of our economy is based on tourism. We’re not alone. Other states are facing similar crises, and the current federal government has made it clear that they will not help.
So…scenario 1: More of the same.
Scenario 2 isn’t that much better. Depending on the margins that the Democrats gain in the Senate, they might not be able to wrest too much control from the executive. They’ll do some things, override some of the vetoes he puts on legislation, but that’s about it.
They will try another impeachment. And maybe another. So gridlock will remain in this country, and tensions will remain high.
As far as economics go, there might not be as many stair-steps downward, but there will still be a lot of economic chaos for at least two years, until the next Congressional election cycle. (Oh, I get tired just writing this.)
The third scenario might be better, economically speaking. Biden will do a lot of the work needed to get the virus under control, work like contract tracing, proper testing, the right kind of equipment, and things that other countries have already done. But if he doesn’t have the Senate, then some of the work needed to get the economy back on its feet won’t happen.
If the fourth scenario takes place, then things will improve—not just on the pandemic front, but on the economic as well. There are things that can be done to improve the economy, things the Obama administration did to get us out of the Great Recession. That will take a lot of work.
No matter what scenario happens, though, the problem is this: the pandemic was allowed to run rampant in this country—well, for damn near a year by January 20 2021—and that has caused incredible personal and economic pain. That pain was compounded by the lack of a stimulus this summer, and this fall, here in the U.S., will be economically ugly, even if Congress approves some kind of aid in the next month or two.
Many lost jobs will never come back. Many industries have suffered irreparable harm. Many families will lose their homes. And many many people will have lost their health for good.
We can see the future now. We’ve lost our opportunity to recover well. We’re going to have to rebuild and repair for years ahead. We have a lot of work ahead of us. It’s going to be a hard couple of years.
Like most of you, I wish we didn’t have to go through this. I wish that we could get a redo on 2020, but we can’t.
The road ahead of us is becoming clearer and clearer. It’s strewn with rocks and potholes. It’ll be difficult to walk at times. There are still a lot of questions—how long will we be limping? Will we have more decline? When can we rebuild?—but we know what to ask now.
And believe it or not, that’s a good thing, because we can start planning again.
There’s always opportunity in downturns. We’re seeing it already, with industries that no one would have guessed would have done well in 2020, from in-home exercise equipment to anyone making hand sanitizer. Several businesses turned away from making fun things like t-shirts and started making masks or, here in Vegas, those plexiglass dividers so that grocery clerks stand behind so that customers (without masks—you know who you are and stop being an idiot) won’t breathe on them.
The other day, I realized, as I ran past our local independent bookstore, that most of the world I lived in—we lived in—was still operating on systems built by the World War II generation, after their catastrophe. The returns systems for paper books came about during the Depression. The marketing strategies in publishing were developed by madmen in gray flannel suits in the 1950s.
That world—our world—had become static, although so many industries were pushing against those things. Now, a lot of the vestiges of that world have fallen away in this COVID era. We’re going to have to build something new, and we will.
But first, we have to see the future. Not just that there is one, but one that we can live in.
Which brings me back to school. As I started my Spanish class this fall, the instructor asked us all if this was going to be our last Spanish class. For 80% of the class, it is. Four semesters of fundamentals, and then, done. But for me, and several others, we’re going forward.
The question actually made me catch my breath, because once I finish this class, I get to choose. More grammar? Reading? Composition? Conversation? I can only take one class per semester, so I have to narrow my focus.
Those are personal choices. But it was the question—the rote question for her. I’m sure she asks it every semester. But for me, it was that moment reclaiming my future. Of course, I’m taking more classes. Of course, I’m going forward.
There will be a 2021. And it’s calendar time in my house, but more than that. I need to look out farther than the next week or the next month. We’re not frozen in amber. We are in a mess—the entire world is in a mess—but what do you do with messes?
You clean them up.
Sometimes it takes days. Often, it takes years.
We don’t know the extent of the mess yet, but we can see its shape. We know we’re facing a lot of work, not a little bit of work.
And I know, as a writer of fiction, I will have a job. I provide relaxation and entertainment for people who are doing the hard necessary work.
Some of the peripheral things are gone. I decided not to renew an option with a man who had a clear vision of a TV show for my property pre-pandemic. This summer, he still didn’t know if that vision would happen in 2021 or 2022 or if the kind of work he wanted to do would ever return.
It wasn’t fair to him to have him continue to pour money my way while he decided, and it wasn’t fair to me to work with someone on licensing who no longer had a real idea of what he was going to do.
We decided to revisit the property in January. Whether that happens or not is up to him. I’m sure there will be other opportunities, things I haven’t even realized yet.
For months, I couldn’t see past the day-to-day fog. That’s not how I’m used to living. But I had gotten used to working with my head down, trudging forward, doing my best while waiting for news.
News is dribbling in. We know what’s coming, more or less. Planning can resume.
Change is coming, whether we like it or not.
Or rather, change is here. We’re in the middle of it. And now, we can start charting our paths on that boulder-strewn road ahead.
I don’t like the future that I see. I wish it was going to be different. But I’m ready to move forward and figure out what’s next.
And honestly, that one step—that first step forward—actually feels good.
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“Business Musings: Reclaiming The Future,” copyright © 2020 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / Nejron.
Those are all good things to keep in mind as we go vote. My biggest stressor right now is the divisiveness within the country, the “us vs. them” mentality that seems to prevail at the sides of the political spectrum. It’s not just the far-flung fringes anymore, the need to take a side is creeping inward, toward the center. It’s hard to be a moderate.
We are trying to avert a constitutional break-down and the possibility of either secession or a civil war. Some people talk about a new constitutional convention, where we could all figure out how to live with our differences while still appreciating our commonalities. It’s an interesting thought. We are still stronger together than we would be apart.
I admit writing anything but sci-fi or fantasy is really hard right now.
With this in the back of my mind, I try hard to just carry on as though I didn’t have a care in the world. Focusing on the future is critical right now. The future is like a bungee cord pulling me out of the muck that’s 2020.
Don’t forget that not all parts of the country are being hit the same way. States with more diverse economies will fair better than those that rely mainly on tourism. Also, some states have had floods, fires, and hurricanes and others haven’t.
For comparison, Texas was down to 6.8% unemployment as of August, still double our pre-pandemic number. We are currently at the same level of unemployment as during the Great Recession, which is better than unemployment was immediately after Hurricane Harvey. Hurricanes do affect our numbers.
And here are our COVID numbers: https://txdshs.maps.arcgis.com/apps/opsdashboard/index.html#/ed483ecd702b4298ab01e8b9cafc8b83
Thanks for this, Kris. I think we could all use a more constructive vision of the future right now. (And while you’re comparing possibilities, consider the K-shaped recovery. Not great for inequality or anyone who isn’t the 1%, but it certainly explains some of the economic patterns we’re seeing.) Here’s to a better 2021!