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Illustration of four people wearing masks and worrying. Amanda Northrop/Vox

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We shouldn’t go back to “normal.” Normal wasn’t good enough.

Many of us feel resistant to return to pre-pandemic life — for good reason.

Sigal Samuel is a senior reporter for Vox’s Future Perfect and co-host of the Future Perfect podcast. She writes primarily about the future of consciousness, tracking advances in artificial intelligence and neuroscience and their staggering ethical implications. Before joining Vox, Sigal was the religion editor at the Atlantic.

With America vaccinating people at a good clip, it’s starting to feel like we could get back to normal-ish life soon. And of course, we all want an end to the pandemic that has taken so many lives.

But many of us are also feeling anxious about returning to normal, having realized that our pre-pandemic lives contained a lot that we’re better off without.

When I asked Vox readers if they were nervous about the return to normalcy, nearly 100 people responded with a resounding “yes.” They’re worried about the awkwardness of reacclimating to social life. They’re worried about returning to commutes and office work that added to their stress and chipped away at their quality of life. And they’re worried about returning to a new normal that looks much like the old normal — one whose flaws the pandemic threw into sharp relief.

As I read the responses, it struck me that there are actually two kinds of worry here. One is the anxiety we feel about doing anything we haven’t had to do in a while. For example, those of us who’ve had the luxury of working from home may find it nerve-wracking to go back to commuting in a crowded subway car or making small talk around the water cooler.

It’s very normal to feel this type of anxiety right now. Barnard College president Sian Beilock, a cognitive scientist who researches anxiety for a living, told me she’s feeling it herself: “When you haven’t practiced in a while, anything can become harder or less fluent.”

But there’s a second category of worry here. And this one, arguably, might be worth cultivating: the worry about returning to a global normal we’d rather not come back to. The pandemic broke open public discourse around issues that were either typically sidestepped — mental health struggles, for instance — or accepted with little resistance, like the rigidity of the modern workday. Will returning to normal life mean sweeping these hard conversations back under the rug?

Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “There are some things within our social order to which I am proud to be maladjusted and to which I call upon you to be maladjusted.” The people I heard from expressed the concern that the world would quickly readjust to an unjust normal.

How society fails on disability and mental health issues

US immigration attorney Yasmin Voglewede is physically disabled. In a previous job, she had asked her boss if she could do some of her work from home as commuting was difficult for her.

“I believed it to be a reasonable accommodation, but my employer never believed that and never allowed it,” she told me. She left and started her own business to give herself the accommodations she needed. But not everyone is able to do that. The pandemic has given many employees a glimpse of just how feasible remote work is for a range of jobs — an option that may soon disappear for many as the pandemic recedes.

“Now, if everything goes back to normal, where would that leave people like me who do have disabilities and would like to continue working but may not have that option anymore if work-from-home isn’t allowed?”

Voglewede added that the lockdown opened up lots of doors for her professionally because all the conferences and webinars moved online. She’s afraid that going back to normal means she’ll be shut out of those opportunities again.

Her perspective underscores the accessibility issues that still hinder the prospects of people with disabilities three decades after passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act — and highlights how unjust one facet of American life was in normal times.

How we talk and think about mental health is another major concern. Several people told me they feel the pandemic has left them with PTSD, while others said it exacerbated preexisting conditions like depression. But an undercurrent in the responses was the idea that the pandemic was a seismic event that made it socially permissible to foreground mental health and self-care — something that wasn’t necessarily true before Covid-19 came along.

As University of San Diego student Lily Yates told me, “I think people’s increased willingness to intentionally care more for their mental health during the pandemic reveals the problem of just how taboo it is during ‘normal’ times. We shouldn’t need to cite a global pandemic to take extra time for ourselves and set necessary boundaries at work and school. The idea that everyone is ‘okay’ at all times — and that we should pretend we are if we’re not — has been shattered, and it should stay that way.”

An oppressive work culture and career pressure

If there’s one message that emerged most clearly from the reader responses, it’s this: A lot of people are really, really over being at the office from 9 to 5. The pandemic has proven that remote work is totally feasible for many jobs, validating people’s suspicions that our standard model of office work is arbitrary, unnecessarily taxing, and ultimately exploitative, sometimes forcing people to choose between their well-being and their career.

“I DO NOT want to return to the office,” one media professional, who asked to be identified only by his first name, Brandon, wrote to me. “It was such a waste of time, money, and energy. Commuting, the small talk, the stupid forced social interactions, the idea that people should pitch in and stay late on things. Such a cultural scam.”

He’s loved how working remotely has given him more time and energy to enjoy personal projects like painting and making music. “I DO NOT WANT TO GO BACK TO THE WAY SOCIETY WAS BEFORE,” he insisted.

Many people are also realizing that the intense career pressure they’d felt pre-pandemic obscured their true priorities in life.

“I lost my job during the pandemic,” Whitney Delgado told me. She’d been doing IT work for an arena in the US but got laid off as sports events shut down. Strikingly, once she had a bit of distance from the job, she realized how burned out and miserable she’d been there. It’s not just that it was hard being a Latina woman in a male-dominated industry. It was that she was working crushingly long hours for bosses who seemed to think she should always be on call.

The pandemic prompted her to reevaluate what’s really important in her life: not constant productivity, but family and community. Instead of putting in so many hours at that job, she told me, “I wish I would have spent more time with my grandfather who died last year.”

Yates, the college student, feels the pressure of our achievement-obsessed society even at her young age. “The pandemic has only more completely exposed the complete worship of work and productivity inherent to the systems around me. My university refused to extend pass-fail grading options after the first pandemic semester, and gave no overarching guidance for professors to help support students during (for many of us) the longest traumatic period of our lives,” she said.

“After many conversations with my roommates and peers, it’s become very real to us that productivity has been consistently prioritized over our mental health, safety, and well-being,” she added. “My feelings of betrayal from systems that were supposedly in place to protect me will stick with me for a long time to come.”

Wealth inequality and underpaid work

Raj Harish Makwana, who lives in India and aspires to find work as an environmental engineer, told me that the pandemic really shined a spotlight on wealth inequality. “This pandemic has accelerated inequality and it’s a big problem,” he said. “More poor people and low-income countries are facing economic problems. I feel worried about the job market, as the data shows that more money has been shifted toward the super-rich people and many millions of people have lost their jobs.”

He’s right. The world’s richest individuals — like Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg — got richer in 2020, while the world’s poorer individuals fell further behind, suffering increased unemployment rates.

For Makwana, this is personal. When India went into lockdown last year, it meant he couldn’t find any internships. He watched as three of his friends who’d been working in a cloth factory lost their jobs. And his father, who ran a small construction company, had to shut down the business. Ultimately, he was forced to go looking for a new job, but there wasn’t work to be found.

Although the Indian government did decide to give direct cash payments to the very poorest people in the country, the financial help it offered its citizens overall was far more limited, as a share of GDP, than in countries like the US. Makwana’s family did not get help. “Most rich countries have got some kind of financial help from the government,” he said, “but the rest of the world is not so lucky.”

Direct cash payments gained popularity in some places in 2020, on an individual level (lots of people opted for this kind of charitable giving) and on a policy level, whether as stimulus checks or new basic income programs like the ones that sprang up in Europe and the US. But even in these places, it’s clear these payments are by no means enough to fix inequality.

The pandemic has heightened our awareness that society underpays some people even though they do absolutely essential work. For example, several parents bemoaned the fact that child care in the US is exorbitantly expensive, and yet child care workers are woefully underpaid.

“I realized how expensive child care was for us when we started being allowed to work from home,” one mother, who preferred to remain anonymous, told me. Remote work enabled her to watch over her son there instead of putting him in day care. “It’s been like a big raise,” she said. “The savings make us finally feel like we really are middle class. I feel so lucky that we’ve transitioned to the ‘haves’ side of the equation.”

But she’s more keenly aware than ever that some — including many child care workers — are still on the other side.

To what extent can we redesign our life?

For the privileged individuals among us, now is a good time to get intentional about setting rules for what we will and won’t go back to post-pandemic.

Beilock, the cognitive scientist, recommends asking yourself some questions. “Start by asking yourself what makes you happy. What are the activities you want to bring back? What is meaningful? And what isn’t? What are the boundaries you want to have in terms of work, family, other obligations?”

She suggests actually writing out a grid, where on one axis you jot down all the activities you normally do, and on the other axis you indicate the degree to which you must do them (three is “I absolutely must,” two is “I feel like I should,” one is “I don’t need to”). For any activity that’s not an absolute must, ask if it decreases your well-being. If it does, see if you can discard it.

This individualist approach can only go so far, though. Many of the things we don’t want to return to can’t be discarded by sheer force of will (unless, perhaps, you’re independently wealthy). This is true of the things mentioned above, and it’s certainly true of broad social problems like the lack of adequate sick leave, family leave, and health care.

For social change to happen, something deeper needs to take root. That begins by acknowledging that the “normal” we are returning to may not be so normal at all. It requires us to ask ourselves what we can do to change the harmful systems highlighted by the pandemic.

If we don’t, we will have wasted a massive opportunity for a reset.

“During the pandemic, it felt like people realized the importance of community and mutual aid,” Delgado said. “But when things open back up, I fear we’ll forget that — and it’s every person for themselves again.”

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