We are living in uncertain times.
It may seem as if COVID-19 brought with it a whole set of new problems but not all of the issues we are facing are new.
Following the peak of the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and a rising cost of living have become bookends now added to the long list of pre-pandemic issues. What really has changed is our perspective and our confidence in our ability to forge a path forward.
Prior to the pandemic, there was no single issue that we were all worried about. There were instead a number of issues that concerned many of us. Maybe yours was climate change or an aging population. Maybe it was our struggling health system or an economy that was making home ownership a dream for many. Our assumption was that these issues would be fixed — eventually.
Baby boomers had good reason to feel this way. The social and economic systems that had been successful in the past gave them certainty in the future. Middle-aged Canadians are the most concerned today, but perhaps they were more comfortable pre-pandemic because they dodged the bullet in 2008-09 when Canada’s economy fared better than others.
Regardless of age, most people assumed their job was stable, the price of their house would keep rising, interest rates would stay low, and inflation would remain a problem of the past.
Then along came the pandemic.
The pandemic didn’t make most of the issues any worse. What it did was take our attention off them for a few years while they moved steadily toward us. It made us realize that our society, our economy and our lives are more fragile and interconnected than we had thought. It took away our confidence in the future.
In the middle of the pandemic, when governments were stepping up and progress was being made on a vaccine, it seemed like a turning point for science and the public sector. Both would emerge as the driving forces of a new era of certainty. But this hasn’t happened. We are now less confident in science, and we now see governments as less capable than we did before COVID-19, according to research conducted by Ipsos.
There are two primary reactions to not knowing what is around the next corner. The first is to take control of what you can control. Slow down, look for signs of what lies ahead and proceed only as far as you can see. The other is to turn around and go back to where you know what to expect. The tension between these two views is what we see in much of our research today.
Some people are looking to take control. Slowing down their spending. Seeking more autonomy and information to gain incremental certainty. They are doing this in part because they feel that their governments are no longer focused on their priorities or because they doubt the capability of those governments.
Others are looking backward, wishing for what they remember were the better, or at least the simpler, times of the past. For them, nostalgia is a coping strategy to lean on while the world sorts itself out.
Today, our governments and businesses are trying to prove their value to Canadians with these two seemingly divergent views on the table. This is made even more challenging because people often express that they want both.
Only one-third of Canadians expect their quality of life to be better over the next 10 years, according to Ipsos research. Despite this, people do not think the country is broken. They do think some of our institutions may be close to beyond repair.
Read more: Canadians’ concern over COVID-19 has waned — and so has their drive to get vaccinated: poll
A focus on empowerment and giving people more certainty requires that we provide them with the information, skills and supports to feel certain and take control of their lives. This is a lot of work and not quickly accomplished. If done correctly it will lead to solutions and create longer-term alliances between governments and their constituents and businesses and their clients.
Looking ahead, it will be the organizations that helped people see around the corner that will thrive. It’s also possible that we can learn from taking a more nostalgic view — but not by focusing on the nostalgia for a simpler time.
Instead, we should focus on the principles that helped us get through previous crises. Having a clear vision, collaboration and humble leadership are likely near the top of that list.
Mike Colledge is the president of Ipsos Public Affairs.