As parts of the world begin – haltingly, and amidst variant-related setbacks – to think about what life will be like when the pandemic is under control, I worry that we may too quickly forget the lessons learned, the pain experienced, the aspirations surfaced over the past year and a half.
Fundamentally, we want a market – and a society – that works for all people. But we’re still far from that goal, and the pandemic helped illustrate just how far.
As parts of the world begin to emerge from the pandemic’s worst impacts, the economic benefits of the recovery are flowing unevenly. Inequality is being exacerbated in troubling new ways.
Our current economic system does not work for everyone. Indeed, some doubt it ever will, as the COVID health crisis prompted a broader economic and social crisis that exposed some of our most troubling systemic frailties. The very engine of capitalism – workers – got the short end of the stick yet again. Millions were laid off the moment the crisis struck, and the most “essential” workers of the crisis labored under difficult circumstances and continue to survive at the lowest end of the pay scale. If compensation reflects value, then our system clearly does not value these workers much at all.
And now, as parts of the world begin to emerge from the pandemic’s worst impacts, the economic benefits of the recovery are flowing unevenly. Inequality is being exacerbated in troubling new ways. The so-called “K-shaped” recovery – which leaves a privileged few better off and more people worse off – threatens to magnify old problems.
But if there is any silver lining, it is this: Crisis opened our eyes to an unprecedented opportunity for channeling our energy and resources toward lasting change. As the author and political activist Arundhati Roy points out, the pandemic and the rebuilding ahead present “a chance to re-think the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.” She urges us to leave behind “our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas…to imagine another world.”
We must leverage this opportunity while we still have it.
From “old normal” to a “next normal”
To forge a better “next normal,” both actions and mindsets must shift. One of the most critical changes must center on inclusivity, the way we equitably weave all people into our global economic system.
That’s the old normal.
The next normal will recognize that inclusion never takes root as an optional, after-the-fact “add on.” Instead, the next normal will demonstrate that inclusivity is the foundation upon which the most widespread economic progress can occur. Study after study shows that authentic inclusion can unlock trillions in global economic opportunity, that policies and investments directed at upliftment and development benefit all segments of society.
So, if inclusivity is the foundation for widespread economic progress, then we must design inclusivity into our next economic system. The global community of impact investors will need to be thinking about inclusion at multiple levels. They can dig deeper, beyond simply asking: “Who is in leadership?” or “Is the board diverse?” Instead, they can push a more fundamentally transformative approach by probing concertedly and comprehensively: “Who are the owners? Who is employed? Who is served by these products and services? Who shares in the prosperity this business creates?”
Our next measures of progress
Of course, if we are to genuinely build toward a market and a society which includes all people, the change must be even broader. Our ways of understanding economic success must evolve to better account for inclusion.
If there is any silver lining, it is this: Crisis opened our eyes to an unprecedented opportunity for channeling our energy and resources toward lasting change.
The old normal simply tells us to look at a nation’s gross domestic product or the stock prices on its exchanges. But the next normal will not be tracking prosperity only in dollars, or yen, or euros. The next normal will be thinking of equity, of social progress, of quality-of-life. The intersections of societal need, business opportunity, and planetary health is where value can be created to benefit everyone. That intersection is where we can begin generating a true shared prosperity – the type of prosperity that requires us to measure differently.
In the end, it’s clear that progress toward our next normal requires that we re-evaluate our tracking of progress itself – and build inclusion into the very foundation of our economic system.