The fall of Homo economicus?

Has the pandemic changed our priorities?

The surge to the beaches over the weekend underlines that there is an increasing urge “to get back to normal”, to forget the rigours of lockdown, to put behind us misery and disruption it has caused many. For a large number, me included, getting back to normal appears to mean a return to socialising with friends, watching sports fixtures, restaurant dining, meeting up in the pub or the coffee shop, going on holiday and travelling. I often hear longing in the voice when such things are talked of.

It strikes me that none of this has very much to do with what most preoccupied Homo economicus prior to the pandemic – the usually litany of getting onto the housing ladder, climbing up the career ladder, and making and spending more and more money by running ever faster in the rat race.

It comes as no surprise that we want to do now the lockdown has eased contrasts with the list of things that occupied the majority of our waking hours prior to its start. Returning to the place of work doesn’t regularly feature in most people’s top three; not surprisingly, the desire to engage in the purgatory of the daily commute or endless tackle traffic jams is completely absent. Even the urge to go shopping is now remarkably low our list of priorities among the people I know. (The online shop might have finally won out in its battle with the high street.)

What most of us have really missed during lockdown is the chance to be social. We miss the things we used to do together prior to the pandemic – the chance to socialise with each other for no reason at all, to gather together in groups of friends, to celebrate and enjoy life with one another. We have also missed our freedoms – in particular, the ability to wander without constraint wherever we choose. Both these things are now likely to have a new priority in our lives.

It is interesting that for some people, some of these same things are also represented in what they see as the more positive aspects of lockdown. Friends tell me they have appreciated being able to spend more time with their families. Many say they have taken the opportunity to catch up on the phone with those with whom they have not been in regular contact. Others have used the time to do something they have long been intending to do but have not had the time to do so, until now.

As an aside, it is notable how many fathers I saw spending time with their young children during the first few weeks of lockdown. It was equally notable how this seemed to diminish somewhat as the second month wore on. I wonder what the children thought of it all? How would they rate the absence of their friends against increased time spent with their parents, I wonder?

So, have we learnt anything from this experience? What would our society look like after lockdown if these new priorities somehow became more permanent? It might mean we would spend much less time at work, and more time together. This would weaken the hold of business over our time and this, in turn, could help shape a very different set of priorities for our society and our economy.

For the past forty years, the needs of business have shaped not only economic priorities but also almost every aspect of social policy. Are we starting to see the economy as just one aspect of life and not the master of society? Could the reign of Homo economicus have come quietly to an end during lockdown? Could this maybe be one real legacy of the coronavirus pandemic?

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