The New Normal isn’t what you think

The New Normal is not business as usual. This digital revolution is going to take decades - so you better be ready for stormy weather…

The New Normal is not business as usual.

We’re in an age of disruption, of profound change, and there’s an understandable yearning – especially in those whose lives and jobs have been shaken up – to want things to “return to normal”.

What they’re hoping for just can’t happen. That “normal” is gone. The quiet, incremental levels of improvement in the post-Industrial age have been over-turned by the digital technologies of the Information Age, and we’re in a new normal. This normal is not about stability, it’s about change.

How long can we expect this to last? Well, a good rule of thumb would be to look back at the past, to the last time we had a period of change in our working lives this profound: The Industrial Revolution.

How long did that last? Most sources cite a period of about 60 to 80 years, from 1760 to sometime between 1820 and 1840. Let’s be generous and say that this Information Revolution is going to be faster than that. About twice as fast, maybe. How long does that give us? 30 to 40 years, with us maybe a decade into that. That leaves us, in a best case scenario for those who want things to return to “business as usual”, with 20 to 30 years more to endure. That’s probably the rest of their working lives.

Business as Unusual

Their yearning is doomed. There will be no return to business as usual. We have begun a process of continuous change that will last decades – perhaps for much of the rest of our lifetimes. This is the New Normal.

How else could it have turned out? We’ve invented a set of technologies that transform human communication as surely as the industrial age revolutionised our ability to make things and to travel. The very texture and fabric of our lives is changed by this. I was ten years old when the very first computer entered my life – a Sinclair ZX81 – and it would be more than a decade beyond that before I would see a computer connected to the internet.

My daughter is only just 18 months old, and she’s never know a world without tablets – “iPad” was amongst her first dozen works – and fibre-optic broadband. The difference between her experience of childhood and mine will be so much greater than it was between my parents and I.

From the Road to the Sea

My father worked for one company – BP – for the majority of his working life. He joined a business that was eventually bought by BP before I was born, and he worked there until he retired. I’ve worked for dozens of businesses, as a full-time employees, as a part-time contractee and as a consultant. My experience is now more “normal” than his was. The period of stability that allowed long-term employment like that is over. None of us know which businesses will be disrupted next. Who would have predicted the death of Kodak two decades ago? Who would have though that the world’s great newspapers would be fighting for their very survival early in the 21st century?

Who knows what businesses will be next? Which technologies will upend our lives again, as the internet and the mobile phone have done? Will 3D printing change manufacturing forever – or will that be done by the internet of things? Will the fashion industry’s tastemakers and designers be rendered irrelevant by a boom in craft sellers and computer-based personalisation of clothes?

There is no roadmap of this future. A road is the wrong metaphor entirely. We’re all at sea, tossed around by the squalls and storms of disruption, and all we can do is listen to the weather forecast, and make sure we sail our way through the worst of it. And maybe, just maybe, if we read the forecast right, and get our boat in the right place, we can be the ones who catch the wind in our sails for a while, and ride the transforming wave into the future.

Welcome to the new normal. Watch out for storms…

Photo: Minnie Vuong/ Xvolution Media