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Remembering VE Day during a 21st century conflict

Tomorrow marks 75 years since the declaration of the end of World War II in Europe.

So it’s a landmark anniversary for a significant date in our nation’s history.

Given what we are living through now, it will seem even more poignant.

It’s been observed that the restrictions imposed on us to counter the coronavirus are, arguably, more draconian than the wartime generation lived through. Back then, life, as we would recognise it, carried on even in the midst of the biggest conflict the world had ever seen.

Our current quarantine has had a curious, time-travel effect. As one wag put it: it’s like the 1950s all over again but with better food (and the internet).

And a sense of community. Shopkeepers who can are delivering (safely) to your door and reporting that demand is high and very localised, keeping intact customer relationships and transactions.

We did have rationing, of sorts, at the start of this crisis and now, weeks in, (much) lighter traffic and fewer planes and trains, can make it seem like the clock has been turned back, bringing those post-war years a little closer.

What remains distant is the 21st century equivalent of the all-clear siren.

War, plague or disaster all leave change in their wake.

It was a theme Tom Becket came back to time and again in our interview in early March: how nothing stays the same following, in his words, conflagration. What VE Day also heralded was the beginning of the end of the British Empire.

So when this global pandemic is over, it’s hard to see the fall-out being anything other than the same scale.

Whether that means America will recede in an era of so-called developing economies such as China and India becoming the world’s workshop and, increasingly, tech lab, has been mulled over comprehensively. 

High street retreat

My perspective is a bit closer to home. The High Street, as we know it, will be the first thing most people will realise will never be the same again.

Already undercut by online shopping before coronavirus, the headlines at the start of the year were blunt appeals for rent reductions and business rate cuts to ward off what seemed to be imminent or, indeed, inevitable closure.

Now the pandemic has provided what is likely to be a final blow to those retail models already teetering.

Will our nation of shopkeepers become a convoy of delivery drivers?

While physical shopping won’t entirely disappear - supermarket balance sheets will come out of this in healthier shape - it won’t be the same.

Virtual value

Neither will professional services.

We have built relationships with our clients over the last 40 years across a multitude of market conditions (but never anything like this).

And we find what endures is trust, founded on a solid working understanding. Would that have been the case if Zoom, Microsoft Teams or Slack had been the only way to nurture such partnership?

For us, there will always be a place for the personal, the face-to-face, but will this emergency accelerate the ongoing splintering of how we interact in our working lives? Will it call into question the current need to account for office space and the extra cost it brings?

For some, it will but for most it will see the shift to a new pattern of professional practice; reduced hours spent in the office but more time spent with clients, both existing and new, contacts and partners online.

Hardly revolutionary thoughts, I grant you, but even a decade ago, our real networks could not have been digitally duplicated so readily.

And have we, at any time, ever seriously questioned whether or not we could shake someone’s hand again? Or sit next to someone on a flight for hours?

At the time of writing, the government is trialling the prototype of an app to trace the virus, something I’ve mentioned before. On the face of it, it’s a technological solution but much of the coverage has focused on fears over privacy and data protection.

It turns out trust is integral to our relationship with government. In an increasingly virtual, post-viral world, it is a quality on which our leaders will need to draw to be sure of declaring victory against this latest foe.

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Our current quarantine has had a curious, time-travel effect.

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After 40 years of experience in the pensions world, I'm sharing my insights.