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Don Cunningham: Pandemic is This Generation’s Catalyst for Economic, Social Changes

By Colin McEvoy on December 7, 2020

This column, written by LVEDC President & CEO Don Cunningham, originally appeared in The Morning Call and on the newspaper’s website on December 2, 2020. (Click here to read Cunningham’s previous columns.)

Don Cunningham

Don Cunningham

I became a grandfather this fall.

My daughter had a baby girl. She named her Josie Charlotte, the middle name in honor of my mother, who’s been gone since I was 14.

My daughter never met my mother, just as I never met Bridget Dillon, my great-great-grandmother who found her way to America more than 100 years before we borrowed her name for our daughter, our first born.

Time rolls on and generations change hands — much more quickly than we realize when we’re younger.

Josie Charlotte is a beautiful little 11-week-old. She lives in Philadelphia.

With the COVID-19 precautions needed for a newborn, I haven’t seen her that much, yet. She only knows her extended family with masks on their faces.

She’s a child of the pandemic. A 2020 Baby.

Not only will this designation stay with her for a lifetime, but the events of this year will also bend the economic and social course of history for decades to come.

That’s the way it works. Nothing stays the same. Typically, there are major events that are a catalyst for change — demarcation lines in the history of humankind.

My great-great-grandmother was a product of the Irish potato famine. It brought her and her future husband to America from the shores of Ireland.

Their grandson, my grandfather, was born in 1920. He would come of age during the Great Depression and fight in World War II.

My mother, Charlotte, and father, born in 1946 — the first year of America’s Baby Boom — would realize the fruits of America’s post-war economic boom, along with the challenges of the Vietnam War and social upheaval.

A famine, an economic depression, a world war and (yes) a pandemic rendered economic and social changes that ushered in new eras and approaches that made the old obsolete — some for the better, some for the worse.

In the 2020 pandemic’s first few months, new patterns emerged and took hold. With a deadly disease to fear, people became grounded, some by government mandate, but more by adopting new self-preservation behaviors.

Restaurant visits declined. Families ate more meals at home. People learned to cook again. With crowded bars risky, cocktail creation and drinking at home increased.

Shopping at physical stores, except for life-sustaining goods like groceries, and household and pharmacy items, also declined. Online retail — ordering goods delivered directly to the home or business — exploded. This accelerated the back economy and supply chain needed to serve it, driving growth in places like the Lehigh Valley despite a stilted economy.

Spending on home improvements and additions increased as people rediscovered their homes and noticed what needed renovating.

People in dense urban areas like New York City sought housing in areas outside the city — leading to home sale and price increases in places like the Lehigh Valley. Remote work, supported by technology and the internet, emptied office buildings and ushered in new evaluations on how much physical office space is needed, opening up possibilities for smaller markets including the Valley for corporate office users.

It’s going to be a tough winter. We’ve entered the fourth quarter of altered reality.

We’re not used to being grounded. The ability to travel widely and have an active social life are tough genies to push back in the bottle.

But the pandemic will end, most likely at some point in 2021 as vaccines are approved and enough of the population is inoculated.

Many of these economic and social changes, however, will remain.

The pandemic accelerated the shift to online retail for a large portion of consumer purchases. Those numbers won’t shift back.

The production of food, beverages and pet food is growing as people eat fewer meals in restaurants and have rediscovered their homes.

The good news is that the Lehigh Valley will benefit. As an industrial center for manufacturing, food and beverage production, e-commerce and logistics, the growth of jobs and wages in these areas will continue. Manufacturing here employs about 35,000 people and e-commerce and transportation nearly another 35,000 and growing. The minimum wage for nonskilled work has reached $15 per hour or more. Skilled manufacturing work pays $25 to $30.

We can lament what’s been lost but it’s counterproductive.

Rebirth and change are the histories of humankind. Adaptation is critical to survival.

I was in a bathroom recently where the door had a handle device at the bottom so your foot could open it. It struck me that there’s likely to be less flu and sickness in the future. Hand sanitizer will remain prevalent and people may wash their hands more often, especially before touching their faces.

From pandemic could come less sickness.

I wonder about the world my granddaughter Josie Charlotte will discover.

Maybe it will be a little slower. Maybe the pandemic pumped the brakes.

I’m OK if she eats more meals at home around a family dinner table, spends less time in airplanes and more time getting to know her neighborhood and community, and, of course, visiting her grandparents.

Just like with her name, maybe she’ll inherit a life with just a touch of the simplicity of the past.

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