Doesn't it seem as though we just finished with a recession, the so-called Great Recession, or the Very Bad One since Great implies a positive? Well, actually that was over ten years ago. Even so, there are segments of our citizens that never recovered fully.
The economy changed in some fundamental ways while the economic rescue plans tended to aid the well-off, not those struggling. Many middle-class individuals and families have spent the past decade largely stagnant in growth and well-being, even as an 10 year economic expansion was underway.
So, it may not be "official" yet, but the next recession is about to huff and puff and try to blow our house down. The stock market acts like someone on Spring Break, bouncing from feeling good to sicker than a dog. A whiff of good news, or bad, sends it off chasing its own tail.
While our economic system has regular boom and bust cycles, I think the odds are very good that we are beginning something none of us has ever lived through before: at some point trying to restart a virtually shutdown economy, all while protecting billions of people from a deadly disease, and restoring some sense of personal safety while re-engaging with others and leaving the cocoon we have inhibited for months....quite a tall order with many moving parts.
My best guess is a very slow, gradual, reopening of parts of both the economy and civic life. Personally, I hope the library is one of the first to welcome people back. It is such an important resource to all ages, providing services that have been vitally missed. Maybe parks that have been closed or playgrounds wrapped in protective tape will once again allow families to play outside.
Manufacturing and construction will probably be among the first industries to start up again. Chain restaurants and hair care establishments will also start the march toward normality, though maybe in ways that are different from before. Letting in only a certain number of people at a time, having shorter hours, continuing to stress social distancing and maybe masks...all are possible. Don't be surprised to see waiters still in gloves and masks, handing out disposable menus.
Smaller restuarants, book stores, dry cleaners, coffee shops may be next. But, the question is how many will have survived the enforced shutdown? Just like the first six or seven years after the 2009 recession, I would expect to see lots of empty storefronts. Places I have frequented for years will be no more. Unemployment among these types of business will remain horribly high for the foreseeable future.
I hope gyms aren't too far down the restart list. Expect the request to wipe down equipment after use to become mandatory. Spacing between machines, treadmills, and even weight benches will change. Checking someone's temperature along with their keycard is likely.
Maybe one of the ways we will know things are really on the mend is when sporting events return. Will there be enough time to hold a major league baseball season? Will a 45,000 seat stadium only allow half that number in, leaving at least one empty seat between each fan? Will enough of us feel comfortable to attend to make even that half-size crowd reality?
Will the NFL start even close to on time? How about college football? Professional hockey and basketball are done for this season; is a fall start for the new season going to happen? How does social distancing work in such a packed-together setting? No sports until 2021? Depending upon a projected rebound of the virus in the fall, that is more likely.
Finally, more robust travel will start to return, both for business and leisure though with obvious changes in boarding and paperwork requirements. I do have serious questions about what will happen to the cruise industry and their massive floating cities. After all the stories of the deaths and people being locked in their rooms for weeks as ships hunted desperately for a port that would accept them means quite a leap of faith in getting onboard.
What about schools and colleges? How will having 30 kids, crowded into a classroom, or 300 in a lecture hall, change? Will cafeterias no longer allow kids within a foot of the food serving line? Teachers, PE instructors...no one will be left in quite the same situation as last March. And, what will be done about the 2-3 months of lessons lost? Parents are doing the best they can but learning around the dining room table is not the same.
I am the first to admit, I was relatively lucky in weathering the effects of the last recession. By having no mortgage I had no fear of foreclosure. By having no credit card debt I had no fear of bankruptcy (unless a major medical problem cropped up). By being almost eight years into my satisfying retirement at that point there was no job worry.
Our house did lose half of it's value between 2008-2012. Thank goodness we didn't have to move during that period. Even though my financial investments tend to be conservative, that doesn't mean I didn't suffer loses. My various retirement and savings accounts had a 40% paper loss in less than a year. That induced some serious stress, no matter how well your life is going! So, yes, the Great Recession was a pain in the butt for Betty and me, but nothing like it was to millions of people who were devastated. I feel embarrassed to even place myself in the same general category.
My feeling is what we are going through now, with virtually a shutdown world, the unemployment figures, the massive debts our government is generating, the destruction of way too many small businesses, the uncertainty, and the time lag before a vaccine is available to make us feel even remotely safe, will combine to make what we went through ten years ago seem like a minor bump in the road.
What gives me long term optimism is the spirit of people helping people that this crisis has unleashed. The realization we are all in this together and will get out of it together could make the Covid-19 disaster recovery period very different from the Great Recession.
I believe when this is behind us, two, four, or five years from now, our economy, political landscape, and society will have undergone some profound changes. My hope is we emerge with a fairer, more equality-based system. That we will have learned that we are strong individually but also as a group; our neighbors are our support and friends, not our enemy.
Preparation for future disasters will take a much higher priority. Wishful thinking or sound bites will be replaced with open-eyed acceptance of the facts. Our health care workers and providers, first responders, and teachers will be elevated in terms of both status and remuneration.
And, the people who helped keep us fed and protected, at personal risk to themselves and families, will be recognized for their importance, both in how we respond to them and how they are paid and protected.
A recession is a given and it is going to be nasty. There is going to be a large human toll. Even so, I have every hope that we will come out of it a healthier, stronger more humane society.