Letter: After the crisis, let’s not bounce back. Let’s leap into the future.  

March 2020. 

It only takes a day to receive a text message from the Prime Minister informing you of a lockdown. It only takes a week for unemployment statistics to record-breakingly surge. It only takes a month and the healthcare system is on the brink of collapse. Will it take a year – or ten – for this extreme uncertainty to waver? 

Our perception of time is clouded for a good reason, which is why we need to look ten years ahead.

Political decision-makers, social institutions, enterprises, and employees face several difficult decisions each day. Whether to close the borders, to hand out stimulus packages, to make resolutions on subsidies or redundancies, or how to combine work and childcare. 

When examining the outcomes of difficult and swift decisions, it is necessary to note that we all get our share of the epidemic’s consequences. However, they are very unevenly distributed among people.

Currently, nearly everyone shares the experience of being home quarantined, but nearly all have not lost their job. Others are eligible from earning-related unemployment benefits while others are not. This is only the beginning: the further we go, the wider the chasm of inequality may become. 

In Finland, the biggest challenge of the depression in the 1990s was not what happened during but after it. As the economist Sixten Korkman noted, it is time for brave decisions concerning financial stimuli to prevent Finland from having a new generation of ‘children of the depression’.  

Amid the crisis, we need faith in the future for people to become committed to the reconstruction of society. It takes faith, solidarity, and a willingness to change the course of the future. 

In addition, we must create and build a society that fares better under such blows as the pandemic but also other shocks: climate crisis, Internet blackouts or any threat. Instead of only looking ahead to next week or this summer, we must also take a look at the year 2030. 

We don’t want to bounce back to the old, but move on to the future. Thus, we should follow at least these three directions.

1. Now or never: we must learn to view economic, social, and ecological growth side by side. 

The global economic system has been continuously challenged, but the year 2019 was revolutionary. Capitalism was heavily critiqued even by those who have traditionally believed in the markets transcendent ability to solve societal problems. 

With the pandemic crisis, people around the world will begin to view the basis of society in a different light. The pressure to change the system was already great before the crisis as it seemed impossible to tackle the major global challenges, inequality and climate change, purely within the current system. 

However, it is not enough to change the tools and indicators of the economy; rather, we must begin a dialogue on the whole purpose and goal of it. What do we prioritise and where do we place value? 

Our current system is built on continuous growth, whether it concerns profits, wages, or tax revenue. Suddenly, we find ourselves in a situation where this progress is interrupted. At the same time, ecological reconstruction is even more urgently needed. It must not stop, even when economic growth takes a halt due to a pandemic. This crisis must be seen as an opportunity to create a new, more sustainable, economic way of acting.

We believe that the politics of wellbeing and economics will become closer to one another in the future. This rapprochement requires that, besides the GNP, other equally well-regarded indicators are brought up: ones that consider both the wellbeing and participation of people as well as the state of the environment.

Recommended reading: Economy of Wellbeing

2. Alongside traditional wage labour, a new promise is finally fulfilled. 

Long before the pandemic crisis, we asked how to secure equality and the requisites of a good life in a time when fewer people are employed permanently and full-time.  

Should people be encouraged to seek traditional forms of wage labour if it is increasingly challenging and if other, potentially more sensible options exist? We posed this question in the Next Era project, done in collaboration with the Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra. 

The pandemic has turned the flexibility of the labour market upside down. Remote work is possible for some; for others, it is off the table. The workload doubled for those whose children are sharing their desk. Hotel cleaners, waiters and salespersons are hopelessly out of work, whereas food couriers are keeping busy. However, in London, for example, couriers are facing a choice: to break the quarantine rules to earn a living or to stay home, penniless.  

The crisis has already taken a toll on an individual’s flexibility and activity. Still, harder times lie ahead: when the depression hits, how can we make sure everyone stays part of the society? 

We believe that this effort requires safety (financial), faith in a fair society (trust) as well as the opportunity to realise oneself (agency): besides permanent work, a promise must be made that everyone truly has the opportunity to partake in building a sustainable society. 

For this reason, we want to discuss universalism still.

Recommended reading: The Nordic model is not about well-being – It is about capabilities

3. From impossible to possible: the new forms of universalism.

In the short term, decision-makers will be faced with difficult questions concerning subsidies: how much, for whom, for how long? The social security system must ensure that people won’t be divided into two groups: those who are entitled to it and those who are not. 

The transformation of work and livelihoods began already before the pandemic. The role of traditional wage labour has changed and technological development has distributed its benefits unequally. 

The economist Mauri Kotamäki said that now would be the perfect time to make the shift to introduce universal basic income which would treat all unemployed as equal. Still, we want to look even further. 

The term ‘universalism’ describes the resources and services offered by the society to which we all should have a right. The question does not solely revolve around the distribution of income: instead, it is concerned with ways to support the autonomy and agency of individuals.

Future forms of basic social security could consist of access to affordable housing or continuous learning. The third, more well-renowned example is universal basic income. The crisis shows how important it is for an individual to have even some form of income flow – and the possibility to supplement it. However, it is not enough if the situation continues longer. All three examples above would give people a sense of security in a situation where being active yourself does not result in the same amount of income each month. 

Now, more than ever, we need a universal vision of the future. One that creates a feeling of solidarity as well as faith in a better tomorrow – for us all.

Recommended reading: Universalism in the Next Era

We publish weekly letters to imagine progressive, fair and sustainable societies after the coronavirus crisis. Follow Demos Helsinki also on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn

Article photo: Deepak Kumar Dalai