In the mid-19th century world trade relied on fast sailing ships which crisscrossed the globe. They were powered by the winds, and relied on huge sails made of cloth. If you were a sail manufacturer, you were doing great business. Then in one generation, iron steamships appeared, and the business of sail-making was pretty well trashed. Now digging coal for the steam engines was the business to be in. By the turn of the century ships were running on oil and coal was on its way out. Halfway through the 20th century, the airline industry was starting to kill off shipping.
And so it goes: constant change, the fall of old industries, the rise of new ones in their place. History offers the same lessons: That when change comes it can be decisive, and offer no route back to the old ways. The First World War (and the Spanish flu pandemic after it) brought unprecedented change. In more modern times, the fall of the World Trade Centre towers changed the way states asymmetrically combat threats, and air travel security has never been the same. The financial crisis of 2007-2008 was another significant tipping point, considered by many people to be as bad as the Great Depression of the 1930s.
And now we have the coronavirus.
As good as it gets?
I recognize that in all these huge historic events that I’ve mentioned, people have lost their lives, often in their millions. Even financial crises can bring deaths, and certainly hugely impact lifestyle. Naturally I am sorry for this. But it brings me to the question I want you to consider: Have we reached Peak Lifestyle? What I mean, is this: Was how we lived pre-coronavirus as good as it gets? Clearly for people in many developing countries, or refugees on borders, their lives have hardly been good to date, but I’m talking about for those of us who follow the affluent, westernized lifestyle.
As businesses and social gatherings are closed and banned around the world, I suspect that we’re starting to say a long goodbye to the way we have lived for most of the last fifty years. We have enjoyed relative peace, increasing healthcare, and the idea that businesses will grow and grow, forever. Suddenly, the coronavirus pandemic is causing us to question that.
I’m not being alarmist, but - for instance - it interests me to see large corporations sending their employees off to work from home. Will this be sustainable, and if so, why will big companies even want to keep their giant steel and glass offices open in the future? Business travel is already rapidly scaling down, with conferences around the world being cancelled, and airlines and hotels feeling the pain. Did we really need to journey to the other side of the earth for a three-day meeting? Nice for the networking and to see another part of the world on company expenses, but essential? - Nope.
The knock-on effects will grow and grow as one industry sector feels the pain, and passes it on to another. Socially we are ceasing to send our kids to school, to attend football matches, cinemas and clubs. Did we just hit Peak Lifestyle? I think we did, and I think we have to now re-draw the map of how we do what we do, and why we do it.
Already we are seeing the paradoxical benefits of the coronavirus pandemic in that the air pollution which usually hangs over China is rapidly clearing. Massively reduced air and road traffic will also presumably benefit the earth’s atmosphere. We also will all have the opportunity to review our individual lives, and figure out new things to do, and new ways of doing them. Peak Lifestyle – we got there, and the world carries on turning.
When the financial crisis of 2007-2008 came along, I was personally in a very good position. I’d been working in digital startups for some years and was well-placed to leverage my experience. Megacorps were feeling the pain of massively reduced communication budgets, so when I approached a few with fresh new ideas to provide great content at fractions of their previous spend, I was well and truly in business. This is the way it always is – just ask the sailmakers how they felt about being pushed out of their market by the new upstart steam engineers. For every business which falls or fails, there is the opportunity for another to rise in its place.
So I’m not minimizing the threat of the pandemic, but the companies that will come through this best are those who are already thinking ahead: What if this is more than a few months of inconvenience? What if we have really just hit Peak Lifestyle? Start thinking that way, and your company will adapt and survive. Even better than surviving, look for ways to ride the wave and create new opportunities which will benefit the world, and your enterprise. We may never again be as affluent and obsessed with consumables as we have been to date, but maybe that’s no bad thing. Perhaps the coronavirus outbreak will in a small way start the levelling of differences between the poorest countries and the richest… I can at least hope that.
In the immediate future we may all find our lives more ‘on hold’ than we wished, but if you are an entrepreneur, this is a golden opportunity to reflect and plan, as we re-map Peak Lifestyle.
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