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The Possibilities: Part Two

“When this is all over” has become a sort of mantra we are repeating to ourselves, a verbal comfort blanket in our dialogue with friends and family.

We envision a world in which we will return to our familiar rhythms and rituals. Kids will go to school, we’ll commute to work, we’ll shop freely in the supermarket, we’ll go to the cinema, we’ll go out for dinner, we’ll go on holiday. 

We’ll hug people, we’ll air kiss, we’ll shake hands.

We’ll walk in the street without swivel-eyed anxiety about whether someone will step out of their home right into our pathway, and having forgotten the strains of trying to work out who in your vicinity is going to move to the other side of the street - you or the oncoming pedestrians?

Our weeks will no longer be punctuated by the moments we stand outside, singing and clapping in thanks for our healthcare workers and the other key workers supporting us through this pandemic.

Our memes will return to be about the topics that are the mainstays of our cultures – the everyday strains of dealing with kids, who’s winning in the football or basketball, general ‘banter’. Not on-edge jokes to remind each other that even at a distance, we’re all in this together. Perhaps fewer emojis of wine glasses and laughing-with-barely-contained-hysteria faces.

There will be weddings, birthday parties and all the other celebrations that bring us together. And funerals - and fewer of them – that we attend in person, not at a distance. 

When we picture these scenarios, we’re visualising a world that may not exist in the same shape as just a few weeks ago. As we noted in the first article in this series, there are too many unknown macro factors to predict the economic and cultural fall-out from Covid-19. But we can still hypothesise, based on signals we see today, how various aspects of the ways we live might evolve.

In the last article, we touched on digital wellbeing, our sense of financial security and our ways of thinking about food. Here, we set out another three themes of interest:

Hygiene in the home

“I’ve Dettol-ed the whole house”, a friend recently said (on Houseparty - a breakout app of our ‘new norm’ world).

In recent years, we’ve been putting more emphasis on the sustainability of our home cleaning products. Dettol has launched refill products and biodegradable wipes. Brands such as Ecover, Method and supermarket own-label ecological ranges - such as Tesco’s Eco Active - are in growth.

While the 'hygiene hypothesis' which suggested that cleaner homes are contributing to rise in asthma, hay fever and allergies has been disproved, the idea that there may be a connection here had seeped into mainstream consciousness – we’ve heard it come through in various home-care projects across markets. And in Germany, in our research we’ve found a culturally-grounded perception that exposure to dirt is essential to strengthen children’s immune systems.

But Covid-19 risks altering our hygiene standards and home-cleaning methods and routines, potentially with some lasting influence. According to data just published by Nielsen, claims of killing germs, providing immunity and overall health are more relevant with consumers than claims around naturalness, sustainability or even quality and brand. We’re broadly prepared to pay more for products with anti-bacterial claims, such as ‘protects family against germs and bacteria’ and ‘kills germs and bacteria in an effective way’. [For more detail:].

This is no surprise, however interesting the data is. We’re thinking differently about what we allow into our homes – what touches our doorknobs, what’s on the boxes of our various home deliveries, what we carry in on the soles of our shoes.

What this amounts to is new ways of thinking about the permeability of the home – the risk factors that surround us, and how we create a safe and healthy cocoon from these. This is likely to connect into the needs for other categories, such as air treatment and personal care, but that’s a matter for exploration another day.

Gender equality in the home

In 1989, sociologist Arlie Hochschild published ‘The Second Shift’. From studying heterosexual couples in the 1970s and 1980s, she shared her finding that many women working outside the home were working a ‘second shift’ – going out in the day and returning to do a whole other job, tackling the majority of domestic tasks and childcare.

These days, we don’t have defined boundaries between paid work out of the home and domestic labour in the home. We’ve even lost that neat piece of language (‘people who work outside the home’) to define parents who work in paid employment, which we found to avoid insulting stay-at-home parents by suggesting that they were not working.

It’s too early to say how childcare and home duties are being divided behind locked doors, and how these roles will play out over the coming weeks let alone months.

In some households, this period may really shine a light on uneven distribution of the domestic load, and provoke adjustments that last. Or which may not. 

And, more worryingly, it’s possible it will set back those whose jobs are deemed less critical for the household finances (often women’s, who on average earn less). There is a risk many women will have to carry the brunt of the strain of the juggle, sacrificing their careers.

Rachel Carrell, founder of flexible childcare agency Koru Kids, talked with her customers about the initial impact of the new work-home juggle, and had a couple of stories that pointed to the current or future risk of growing gender inequality. 

Whether it’s women taking the strain more today:

“My wife's largely taking leave at the moment but that's just rough as it's not like the kids can go outside much or interact or be social with others. This isn't like ‘fun time with the kids’ or normal childcare…. This is fun time with the kids with limited space and NO OTHER PEOPLE to interact with physically”. 

With the potential for deeper changes the further into this period of altered living we get. Many may feel that this new juggle is not sustainable, and some are starting the envision the need for new ways of managing things in the weeks and months to come:

“I think a lot of couples will get to a point where one of them gives up work temporarily. Both doing part-time work and therefore not doing a good job just isn't sustainable. I think companies could end up losing great employees for a period of time (and unfortunately I'd bet that in the majority of cases this will be the woman)”.

When we surface from this intense period of blended (messily mangled) work, parenting and childcare, we may well reprise our old roles in the domestic battlefield. Or we may find that we’ve been triggered to ask ourselves new questions and raise fresh challenges over inequal distribution of the domestic load. The key certainty here is that if women shoulder the load of the childcare at the expense of their careers, then we will see some lasting impacts.

But lastly on this topic, there is one positive angle to consider. That this massive social shift on speed triggers us to think about the need for a different sort of equilibrium between work, family and leisure time.  And within this, that contribution at work (in many jobs) is not best measured by hours put in but value added. As Helena Morrissey has written:

“When we make it through (and we will!) this giant enforced experiment in remote working, we’ll be longing for things to go back to ‘normal’, but let’s admit it, they could be so much better. With even CEOs working remotely from home now, the cultural barriers are being rapidly dismantled. If we can show that we can achieve results even if we work shorter hours, today’s difficult experience may be a long term game changer, enabling us to better balance work with the rest of our lives and for men and women to lead more equal lives”.  

How we think about exercise

There are several recent studies pointing to the percentage of gym memberships that go unused, or which are rarely used. The cost of these unused subscriptions is staggering.   According to Top Cashback, gym memberships are the subscriptions – across categories - with the lowest percentage of ongoing usage. 

We’ve realised for years that we keep falling into the habit of taking out or renewing our gym memberships in a fit of optimism at the start of the calendar year, only to start to find more and more reasons not to attend, and diminishing levels of enthusiasm for the rigours of the treadmill. But still, modern gym culture tells us that this is the place to exercise. Lo, the cult of the gym.

Or we go in for triathlons, duathlons, running races… In Britain, the triathlon industry has been in strong growth for years.

In years past, we didn’t have these options. And we didn’t have the same sort of fitness culture. We had Jane Fonda, then Cindy Crawford, and in the UK we’ve had Mr Motivator (oh, Mr Motivator – the nostalgia!), and more recently Davina McCall.

For most, our homes have not been places of exercise in recent years. The in-home fitness vogue had passed, for the most part. Until recently, we had the tendency to see fitness as something that is managed out of the home. 

No longer. Gyms are closed in many countries, team sports are not possible at present, and we cannot so easily exercise out of doors as we used to. Going out for a run or a cycle requires more thinking or may not be possible.

But in the background, a new wave of in-home fitness options have been growing, fuelled by the possibilities of technology. Pre-Covid, we had seen the emergence of FIIT (live fitness classes you follow via an app), virtual cycling brands such as Peloton, or virtual rowing (Hydrow). And alongside this, new influencers have been emerging, such as Kayla Itsines.

The digital fitness industry had been poised for strong growth, and Covid-19 is likely to accelerate that growth significantly, reframing at speed how we think about exercise – where and how we do it, what it looks like, and how it fits into our routines.

Now enter Joe Wicks, the UK fitness coach whose PE workouts for schoolchildren have become a global phenomenon, and drawn in adults as well, from parents to grandparents and the child-free.

Joe’s upbeat chat reminds us routinely of the mental wellbeing and energy benefits of starting the day with a simple workout we can do in a small space in our homes. And in his Insta Stories, he gives us an occasional glimpse of his home gym. 

And unsurprisingly – not all attributable to Joe Wicks, of course - searches on Google for ‘home gym’ have seen significant increases worldwide over the past month.

Of the various lifestyle shifts that we can see emerging from Coronavirus, an increase in home fitness trend appears a relatively likely one to endure- indeed, Covid-19 has simply created conditions for this dynamic to accelerate, speeding us along the adoption curve.

And beyond this? Beyond hygiene, division of labour and exercise in the home? There are many more areas of our lives that are being dramatically altered, potentially with lasting effects. More will be explored in future articles. As previously, comments are welcomed.


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