The Coronavirus Generation

Last Sunday March 15 at 1 am, my 1 year old son Cooper became one of the newest member of the Coronavirus Generation. 

He woke up a fever which would become just a cough 2 days later. My husband, 4 year old son and I all went into 14 days of self-isolation here at home in London. Cooper recovered by day 5, the same day I started to get a sore throat and fatigue (but no fever).  We are all better today, but won’t know whether it was this corona virus Covid-19 or some other normal nursery bug.  When self-isolation ends, our nursery will be shut indefinitely. We are all working from home. A new era begins.

Covid-19 isn’t something that will pass in a few weeks. In the UK there’s no clear exit plan for how we come down from this emergency state and start reopening schools and restaurants.  We’ll be in this state for many months or more.

And this Covid-19 will not be the last virus to become a pandemic. If viruses like this break out and shut down society one or two more times in the next 5-10 years, life will change. We won’t be able to go back to the way things were on March 14th.  Indeed, I suspect pandemics will define baby Cooper’s generation.  

Three years ago I guessed what the world would like for my son Hunter when he turned 18. (  Now here’s my punt on what the world will look like when baby Cooper and other members of his Coronavirus Generation turn 18 in 2037:

  • Everyone will know how to properly wash their hands.
  • Virtual reality video calls will be absolutely normal and natural.  Since we’re in self-isolation this week, my 4 year old Hunter has started having video playdates to break the social isolation; as adults, we are planning virtual board games. Video communication has not been great so far because we need too much data to get high resolution images, and there’s a delay (latency) which breaks the natural connection we have in face-to-face conversations.  But in his fascinating book on virtual reality, Jeremy Bailenson notes that we’ve pretty much solved both of these problems. A company called Faceshift categorized the face into 51 ‘morph states’; by using these to render an photorealistic avatar of your face, it feels like the person – or a cool avatar.  It’s better than a video stream : it’s faster as it’s only 51 data points, conveys the most important info (your expression), doesn’t distract you with unimportant stuff (your phone wiggles, the lamp behind you). Apple bought this company in 2015. I wish I had.
  • Friendships will be constrained only by time zones, not distance.  As people move schools or jobs or cities, they will be able to stay even closer than today — as much more of our social lives will be by video. 
  • Cooper’s social groups will be constrained by how many faces fit comfortably on his screen — maybe just 2 or 3 people at a time. (Of course, screens will get bigger, driven by middle-schoolers social needs to have just a few more people in their group.)
  • Kids will keep their rooms clean. With everyone seeing their rooms as they video chat, having a tidy place with a nice picture on the wall will be more important. (Or so this mom hopes!)  Kids will talk about interior design over lunch. IKEA will thrive.
  • In school, grades will be continuous, based on regular coursework.  Just in case another pandemic strike cancels year end exams.
  • When Cooper starts to think about work, he will have to decide between the two big categories : physical or virtual.  That physical/virtual divide will replace the antiquated white collar/blue collar terms. Physical jobs will be those that require actually touching things and people (doctors, plumbers, waiters); virtual ones can be done remotely (managers, lawyers, maybe even teachers). If he picks the virtual route, Cooper may feel peer pressure to go into pharmaceuticals — they’ll always be in the news.
  • Unfortunately competition for virtual jobs will be intense. UK and US immigration laws that keep trying to keep out physical workers won’t be able to keep out virtual ones. Until this month, the full promise of ‘offshoring’ was blocked by the still high value of in-office ‘face time’ and ‘water cooler’ conversations. But as we spend months working from home this year and in future pandemics, everyone will need to find a way to make a virtual water cooler; and everyone, no matter where we are living, will be able to have a drink at it.
  • Physical jobs will therefore gain in status, and wages for them will go up.  Plumbers will continue to do very well.
  • Urbanization will decline. Virtual jobs will no longer be time or place-bound. Rush hour will disappear. People will live in larger homes, away from pandemic-ridden urban centres. The services we city-mice love — entertainment, restaurants, crowded spaces with lots of other people — will start to thin out and become less vibrant.  And who cares about living near a good school when it could close any day?  Property prices in city centres like London will remain stagnant or decline, as people move to larger homes in suburban, rural or — heck — sunnier places.
  • Where ours was ‘Generation Rent’, Cooper’s will be Generation Buy. Their strong childhood passion for interior decoration plus the more moderate house prices mean they can even afford to buy and refurbish places. (Just maybe not quite enough to pay for a professional plumber.)
  • Dual career families will sharply decline. The practicalities of looking after (young) children while on work calls will force all but the most determined to boil down to a one career family, as schools remain shut and families forced into self-isolation. The optimist in me thinks couples will share or alternate who focuses on their career each time; the pessimist thinks that decades of progress in gender equality will fall apart, and women will end up taking care of the kids.
  • In good news for gender equality, though, the ‘travel bias’ against women won’t matter anymore. I have a theory that travel is a big reason for the glass ceiling in corporate jobs : high status jobs assume a willingness to travel, for instance to win sales, manage regional or global teams, or close deals. Yet people assume that women with kids won’t travel, while men of course will. If no one travels, that bias disappears.   
  • Unfortunately, though, poor Cooper, who will have grown up in a pseudo-virtual world and afraid of germs, will have no idea how to date those more equal women (or men). The shift in focus to virtual everything and spending so much time in their rooms will make him a bit awkward. As a result the Coronavirus Generation will end up settling down much later in life. And I’ll have to wait longer for those grandchildren.
  • So where on earth will Coronakids go to connect with other real (non virtual) people?  I suspect it will be places where they can’t do things they could do at home (so not places where they could drink coffee, watch movies and have a chat). But probably places where they can actually physically run around :  playgrounds, sports fields, pools, gyms, squash courts, and tennis courts.  And so social circles will once again, perhaps, revolve around the local sports club.  Just this time, unlike New York City in the 1970s, not be for boys only. 
  • Perhaps most significantly though, a centuries long trend of individualism in the West will be replaced by a sense of community. Coronakids will come to see themselves as a piece of a bigger social puzzle, having long been taught the importance of self-isolation to protect others, only buying what you need to not stock out critical supplies, and caring for the elderly and vulnerable.  Their sense of identify will be an We, not an I.
  • The pressure on climate change will ease (somewhat). Partially as global supply chains reorganise to more local and lower supply, partially as the economy continues to slow down year after year, partially as the illnesses take their tolls, partially as people hold off on having kids — and partially as Cooper’s generation realises time and time again just how much toilet paper they really need to be happy.
  • Unfortunately since many airlines will go bankrupt every few years, flights will be extremely expensive on those that are left.  So it will be harder for Cooper to see the world first hand.  When Cooper turns 18, I’l give him a round-the-world plane ticket; I may need to save for it starting now, the way other generations have saved for university tuition. At last tuition will be cheaper than it is today – and maybe he won’t bother going to university by then anyway. After all, 17 years is a long time away.

In the meantime, here are the things that won’t change:

  • Great music will bring us together.  The Coronakids will be some of the most amazing artists of all history.  I just won’t like their style.
  • Paracetamol / Tylenol (acetaminophen) will continue to cure many problems with no side effects, and be the most amazing pill of all time.
  • And you, Baby Cooper, will always be our baby.

Stay safe, stay healthy, and keep washing those hands.