I’ve been thinking about how we can frame our time after COVID. I keep hearing that we are moving toward a new normal, but this framing implies that we are letting go of an “old normal” and entering into a new one.

But what does normal mean? Normal implies that things will return to a familiar routine where our daily lives are somewhat predictable. Really, though, when was the last time we truly experienced predictability at work or in our lives? For me, that was sometime before 1991!

Letting go of the language of old and new normal

We are in an environment that behaves like a living system. Nature can teach us a lot about living systems, and one prominent lesson is that living systems are always in flux and movement. Living systems do have cycles, like the seasons that cycle through a year, or the start and end of a school year. And yet day-to-day living continues to require adaptation to what the external environment is presenting to us.

When we frame our future as a new normal we perpetuate a delusion and communicate a false expectation. The delusion is that the old normal was predictable and stable – something it never was. Using the term new normal sets up a false expectation that we deserve a return to a life that is predictable and doesn’t require adaptative capacity and tolerance for ambiguity.

The New Emergent

We need to reframe how we think and talk about life after COVID-19.

Life continues to adapt, and new patterns of movement are natural in nature. Life continues to evolve and over time new patterns of life in ecosystems emerge. What if we used this idea to help us transition into our collective future? What if instead, we talk about a new emergent reality?

We’re living in a time where quantity and intensity of disruption will continue to be our norm. That means that the bifurcation of old to new doesn’t capture our actual reality. For example, climate change and its implications will continue to create unexpected weather events. People are already shifting investing strategies to sustainable companies,  and banking and investment firms are adapting to their client’s demands for more meaningful, serious sustainability goals. Asset risk is a real thing that businesses must adapt to,  and that means business models will be disrupted in the process.

This is just one example of the source of upcoming disruption.  Because the world is a dynamic, interdependent, complex system – just like nature-  we will experience a ripple effect through every other system from communities, to organizations, to politics, all the way down to families and individuals.  Over the last 12 months, we have directly experienced the ripple effect of a pandemic and its disruption to many aspects of our lives. This is our future too.

So, I propose a new frame for our future. What if instead, we label this post-Covid period a time of new emergence? This new emergent time reminds us that a living system is constantly in flux instead of setting an expectation of a return to predictability and stability, with merely a few new rules. It would capture new patterns and cycles that will continue to shape our world, our work, and our personal lives. Most importantly, it would focus our attention on the continuing adaptative capacity we will need going forward.