Business Musings: Facing 2021 (Year in Review Part 1)
Thanks to all of you, both on my website and on my Patreon page, I have a number of things to cover in the year in review. Thank you all for stepping up. A lot of what I saw I was familiar with, which relieved me. I wasn’t as out of touch as I thought I was. But much of it was new as well.
I will cover it, and the coverage will cross into 2022, as these year in review posts often do. At least, it will cross into 2022 for those of you who read on the website. Those of you who read on the Patreon page should see the end of these posts by the end of the year.
I’m thinking about the end of this short series before I even start because I made a list of topics. I realized a few things: some of these topics might do better outside of the year in review, so I might just mention them in passing.
And today’s topic—well, normally, I would put it at the end of the series, because that’s its natural place. But I want to put 2021 in the rear view mirror. Not as badly as I wanted to put 2020 behind me, but badly enough.
I can talk about the business aspects into 2022, because I feel like business is forward-looking, even as we assess what came before.
But this post isn’t really forward-looking. However it is something we have to acknowledge.
The year 2021 is not what any of us had hoped it would be. There are pandemic-related memes going around that are funnier than crap. Scrooge, peering out the window, asking “You boy! What variant is it?” Or Bill Murray in Groundhog Day saying, “It’s New Variant Day…Again.”
Yeah, those of us who know the history of the 1918 flu worried that this was the main possibility, but we had hope that it wasn’t. Hope was the watchword for me as I entered into 2021, and it remained the watchword for much of the year for me.
The summer was hard, extra hard, really, because I had let myself believe we were finally going to be through the worst of this, but I’m sanguine now. I am used to the masks. (My next column in The Grantville Gazette explores that.) I’m vaccinated and boosted and I still stick to places that feel safe to me.
In other words, I’ve figured out how to negotiate this mid-level of the pandemic. Like many of you, I’m learning to live with the dread Covid.
That doesn’t mean that 2021 was easy. It wasn’t. More people have died of Covid at this point in 2021 than in all of 2020. It’s easy to see, frankly, given the way the virus spread.
And that doesn’t count the people who died because of other things related to the pandemic. These are measured in something called “excess deaths” or “excess mortality.”
Fortunately for me, Rice University crunched the numbers and explained them. The kinds of things they’re looking at are best found in these Texas numbers: Between 2019 and 2020, the number of people who “should have” died from heart disease or hypertension was 53,000. Instead, the number was over 60,000. How many of those 7,000 people died because they put off procedures due to Covid fears or because their bread-and-butter but life-saving surgeries were postponed because hospitals didn’t have room? Quite a few, researchers believe. Maybe most of them. That’s why they’re considered “excess” deaths.
My brother is one of those casualties. Not in Texas, but in Indiana. He put off a major procedure until he felt safe doing so, in early 2021. He was fully vaccinated. Everyone, including his doctors, were confident he would come through the surgery with only a minimum of problems. Instead, days later, he left us because his body was no longer strong enough to handle the surgery itself.
Would he have been fine had he had the surgery in 2020 which was when he first needed it? I don’t know. No one ever will. I do know that we all miss him greatly.
I’ve lost a number of friends and family to those same what-if scenarios in 2021. It’s a lingering yet ongoing pain. And as a friend said to me on a Zoom call today, after listing her losses in just the past month, This isn’t unique to me.
I know. We’re all going through this. Which is damn weird. There has been nothing else in my lifetime in which everyone in the world is having the same or similar experiences. Wealth doesn’t protect you from it anymore than the demographics of the country you live in. Sure, some are suffering worse than others, but we’re all interconnected now, and we’re all walking wounded.
That’s a major toll. No one is entirely on their game right now. All of us are tired or sad or grieving or desperate for change or all of the above. Efficiency numbers are down, or as that one friend said to me in a text after we’d been commiserating about truly spectacular errors we’d encountered in business: Idiots abound right now.
I don’t really think the errors are being caused by idiots, though. It’s undertraining, understaffing, too much work, and not enough concentration. A lot of us had trouble focusing in 2021. The circumstances of some of the people I have worked with for years on various things (not just publishing) have changed; they too have lost family members or in the case of one friend, two siblings and a best friend. Another woman I know is going to her very physical day job despite her long Covid. A third has childcare issues because her former spouse can no longer care for their child in anyway.
Some of these things—the childcare issues, the sudden illness—might have happened anyway. People go through life and suffer through events.
Normally, though, we don’t go through them all at the same time.
Then there were other stressors. The supply chain breakdowns have plagued us throughout the pandemic. As I looked for a link for the handful of you who aren’t aware of this, I noted two articles side by side in my Google search. One said the supply chain problems were easing; another said they were getting worse.
In other words, no one knows when this is going to end. The problem isn’t just a shipping problem. There are other global issues at play.
As I said, we’re all experiencing the crisis at the same time.
That goes for businesses as well. Yesterday, Dean and I were in a small chain department store, doing our annual shopping for cheap ornaments to grace this year’s tree. The store looked picked over. Experts had been warning for months that there would be a shortage of Christmas trees—especially the artificial ones—and they were right; there were only a handful at this one retail store.
Some shopper was bitching about it. Didn’t they have more trees last year? he asked his partner. This looks really barren. What do you think is wrong?
And that, in a nutshell, is how most of us felt throughout 2021. Because of our publishing business and because of the manufacturing problem with the Diving game from the 2020 Kickstarter, Dean and I have been aware of the global shipping crisis since June of 2020.
(Ultimately, we had to refund the money to those who chose the game in that Kickstarter—and we weren’t alone. A lot of entertainment companies with real product, like games, had to refund or delay projects because of shipping and manufacturing issues.)
But most people aren’t aware until the problem slaps them in the face. They can’t get what they want when they want it, like they could for the past twenty years. It’s a shock on top of dozens of other shocks.
Those shocks—wake-up calls or cultural changes or whatever you want to call it—are what made 2021 such a difficult year. Those of us who were paying attention did not expect a return to pre-pandemic normal—at least, we said we didn’t if you had asked us at the time. We were aware that over 785,000 people have died in the U.S. alone of this disease. All of us have been touched by it in some way. Every one of us knows someone who has had the disease.
So we were prepared for things to be different, just from the empty seat at the dinner table or that missing phone call over the holidays. But extrapolating “different” into all shades of different has been hard.
None of us are privy to the ways that other businesses work. We don’t know that something is different until we stumble into it. Some of the changes are silent. That small chain department store is in a neighborhood I haven’t visited for some time. A major retailer across the street had not only closed since the last time I was there; it had been gone long enough to be covered by graffiti and have broken glass strewn across the parking lot.
Some of the changes are even more subtle. We participated in the annual Great Santa Run on Saturday (properly masked even though we were outdoors), and it felt exactly to me the same as 2019 and 2018…until Dean pointed out that Las Vegas Boulevard, where the run started, was two lanes smaller due to construction.
So attendance was down, maybe by half. Due to the surging variant? Caution on the part of participants? No one wanting to travel? I don’t know.
What I do know is this: the fact that attendance was down means that the charity, Opportunity Village, which gets the funds from the event, will not receive as much money as they did in previous years—at a time when every charity really needs every single dollar it can get.
And so on and so forth. You all have stories like this. On a micro level as well as a macro level, everything has changed because of this pandemic. And 2021 is the year we all realized that the changes were something we have to cope with, even if we don’t yet entirely understand them.
Those changes, those micro changes in particular, are part of what I’ll be talking about in this series. They are the undergirding of all that we experienced in 2021, and the reason that I foresee even bigger changes ahead, particularly in publishing and entertainment. I’ll try to deal with the future in the pieces that hit in 2022. The first pieces after this one will deal with some of the things we saw in 2021.
A friend said to me on Monday that he thought 2021 was infinitely worse than 2020. Despite the losses I experienced this year and the anger that nearly consumed me in the summer, despite the unexpected move and the way that nothing ever turned out as hoped (even Thanksgiving had an unexpected dark side), I didn’t agree with my friend.
For me, 2021 has been a better year than 2020. The first year of the pandemic was about uncertainty and fear, two emotions that I try very hard to avoid in my life—to the point of being a terrible, awful, horrible control freak when I’m stressed.
I prefer the hope of early 2021 (especially as the vaccines rolled out), the anger of mid-2021 (I can channel anger into something positive most of the time), and the growing acceptance of the changes in our lives toward the end of 2021.
Looking at what I just wrote, I realize that those emotions are part of the stages of grief. I knew in March of 2020 that we had lost the world we had lived in before. I also knew that many of us were grieving that loss in 2020. I hadn’t realized that I was easing into recovery until I wrote that paragraph above.
Does this mean 2022 will be easier? I have no idea. I am less certain about predicting the future than I used to be.
But the difference for me between 2020 and 2021 is that I believe we will have some kind of recognizable future, something that will flow logically from this moment in time. At this point in 2020, I did not know if that would be the case.
Believing in the future means that we can plan for the future, which is why this series is going to go from an analysis of what we experienced in our business to a look at where those experiences might lead in 2022 and beyond.
I feel confident talking about that now. And that’s a big change.
The emotional underpinning of the year is not usually something I take into account when I write business blogs, especially at year’s end. But I think the emotional underpinning of 2021 is a big part of the story of this year.
We have all been on uncertain footing for the past 20 months. That makes some of us angry, others of us a little more crazy than usual, and some of us unable to concentrate. It means that mistakes are more common than they used to be, kindness is in shorter supply, patience is in even shorter supply, and difficulties abound.
Those are part of the 2021 story. They will always be part of it.
But there are other parts as well, parts we can focus on or learn from. And they’ll be part of this blog in the weeks to come.
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“Business Musings: Facing 2021” copyright © 2021 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Photo of the 2021 Great Santa Run at the top of the blog copyright © 2021 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.