Smaller Villages

It is seven weeks since a world of social distancing and omnipresent hand sanitiser was visited upon us.  Human beings, being adaptable creatures, have changed their behaviours and lifestyles to accommodate these new social strictures.  But which of them will last and what impact will they have on our lives as we cross the metaphoric bridge and move forward into the broad sunlit and COVID free uplands?  (Please forgive the mixed misquoting!).

Much will change in Australia and even more throughout the world.  Rather than try and predict it all, I will focus on one trend which I think will affect our Australian society over the medium term – I’ll call it ‘smaller villages’.

We have long been told that the world has become a ‘Global village’ – and no one has embraced this ‘Global village’ more than Australians.  Whether by dint of our size, our isolation or our insecurity, we have enthusiastically engaged with the world through trade, investment and travel (inbound and outbound).  Our communities have been deep, broad and extended.

Our desire to re-engage with our immediate communities – work, sport, families and friends – is palpable.   But the size of the communities with which, until recently, we directly engaged – that is our ‘village’ – is set to shrink through a combination of mandatory restrictions and voluntary behavioural changes.

Prohibitions on international and domestic travel will excise the rest of the world, and in the shorter term the rest of the country, from our ‘village’.

New online habits have been learned in recent months.  Zoom meetings have replaced interstate business travel.  ‘Tele-health’ consultations have replaced trips to the doctor’s surgery.   Microsoft Teams has replaced personal Court appearances by lawyers and clients.  An increase in online banking has led CBA to temporarily close an additional 114 of its ~1,100 branches.  These changed behaviours will continue, ensuring that we remain closer to our ‘village’ and lose many of the incidental human interactions which come with such trips.

For every day someone chooses to continue to work from home (and many will), there is one less person in the office, the City or elsewhere – and one more person in their local ‘village’.

For some there is a growing mistrust of other countries.  For many, there is a heightened awareness of the struggles our ‘village’ neighbours face in their small businesses.  This is likely to lead many to ‘buy local’, favouring smaller local suppliers over larger chains and importers – and perhaps spend more time at our local ‘village’ stores rather than at shopping centres.

A common human reaction to economic stress is to reduce expenditure and increase savings.  Following the GFC, savings rates in Australia increased from ~2% to ~10%.  A recent survey indicated that, once COVID restrictions ease, only 15% of Australians intend to return to their pre-COVID spending habits – that is almost six in every seven people intend to reduce their expenditure.  That means less discretionary spending on things like pubs and restaurants.  Maybe during these COVID restrictions we have learnt to enjoy the company of smaller, closer groups. Perhaps a combination of frugality and a preference for the intimacy of meeting in smaller groups (particularly if our restaurants impose unsociable distancing requirements) will see us entertain more at home – again, staying in our ‘village’.

It has been remarkable to see the number of families inundating local parks on sunny autumn days.  They seem happy, relaxed, contented.  I bet that two months ago they looked hassled, racing from ballet classes, to taekwondo and cello lessons – and then to school sport, club sport and heavens knows what else.  Perhaps they will look wistfully at these carefree days at home or in the park and decide their children don’t need organised activities crammed into every waking hour. Perhaps one day a week at home or in the local park with the family might be more rewarding and relaxing for the whole family.  Another shift to a ‘smaller village’?

Each of these behavioural shifts to a ‘smaller village’ are entirely possible, but when one adds to the mix people’s concern about their health, these shifts become likely.  People, and particularly older people, will be more cautious about their health.  They will take less risks on unnecessary social interactions.  These reduced social interactions will compound the effect of each of the trends I have mentioned.

So there we have it – in less than two months, we have the ingredients to transform us from living in a ‘global village’ to living in a ‘local village’.  That is not to say that we won’t stay connected globally through technology and social and other media.  Rather, our most personal interactions are on the whole, likely to be much closer to home than they have been for a decade or longer.  And from my personal perspective, that is not a bad thing!