The ad man with a chequered past sits in lotus position on a Californian hilltop. In the warm afternoon light, his saloon bar complexion and short black hair mark him as an outsider. As Pacific waves break on the shore below, he closes his eyes. A knowing smile slowly emerges from a firm jawline; Don Draper ‘gets it’. The sixties have ended, the world has changed, and he’s got its measure. He understands the social shift required to enter the seventies with a swagger. And how to sell a new generation a sugary beverage.
Being in the right place at the right time is all very well, but it takes skill to divine the spirit of the times and package it. Mad Men’s Don had a gift for tapping into the zeitgeist and knowing what consumers wanted. But he was also lucky. The seventies are now recognised as a pivotal decade of significant political, societal and economic change. Like a wartime spiv, clifftop Don saw an opportunity to turn a quick buck in the shadows.
How would he fare today, though? There’s change, and there’s change 2020-style. Inside five short months, our new decade has offered up apocalyptic bushfires, the impeachment of the US President, a global pandemic and the worst fall in GDP since the 1930s. It has handed us the apotheosis of shit-kicking populism in the form of leaders who boast of shaking hands with COVID patients or dismiss it as a “little flu”. Nuclear-armed nations have struggled to provide facemasks and gloves for those looking after their citizens. Given that the most used phrase of the decade so far seems to be “you’re on mute”, 2020 has been anything but quiet.
So I find it hard to imagine Don’s 2020 equivalent smiling at this precise moment in time unless it’s the result of too many back-of-the-cupboard lockdown cocktails, or in homage to that 2019 film, the Joker, which was as dystopian as things came, way back when. (Say what you will about the coronavirus, but at least it will force Hollywood to up its game when it comes to unimaginable scenarios.)
Still, let’s be positive. Whether you’re reading a newspaper, watching TV news or surfing Instagram, it will not have escaped your notice that the world has changed and WILL NEVER BE THE SAME AGAIN™️. So, meet me in downward dog and let’s see if we can get a handle on how the decade might look.
Despite the doom and gloom, there is cause for optimism. For a start, smog-free skies point to a future where carbon emissions drop instead of rising each year. In London, bicycles are being painted on road surfaces as councillors have been freed from lengthy planning consultation processes and roads are being converted for the use of cyclists only.
Delivery drivers no longer require a signature and simply leave our packages of flour, booze or household utensils outside the front door. This may seem an insignificant change in the grand scheme of things, but remember the old days when you fought with a courier company because you couldn’t find your stuff and were told it was left on your porch? Seems it was there all along.
In similar ‘sod it’ fashion, businesses are ditching expensive offices and are trusting workers they previously prevented from even using Facebook at work to do their job on a laptop at home, unsupervised. And, freed from the noise of human endeavour, nature is returning; though hopefully not to resupply the wet markets where COVID-19 originated.
Most significantly here in the UK, after years of crushing austerity the cash-strapped national healthcare system has had £13bn of debt erased in one mouse click, and those that work in it are finally being recognised — if not sufficiently paid — for their dedication. It’s not just the NHS. There is a newfound respect for those that care for our elderly parents, deliver our groceries and empty our bins.
Is it me or do people seem somehow nicer compared to their 2019 selves — rare incidents of moronic lockdown-breaking and neighbour-snitching aside? Maybe it’s the sense of liberation that comes from an elasticated waistband and the freedom to wear flip flops or slippers beyond the omnipresent gaze of Zoom’s green dot eye. As our lockdown waists grow larger, maybe our minds are also expanding?
Perhaps these individual changes — some great, some small — point to a future that is very different from the ghastly place that the world had become before COVID-19. And I, for one, would welcome such a place with open arms. (Sorry, I mean a bent elbow and a nervous smile behind a facemask.)
But before we all get too excited about the low carbon, egalitarian and kinder society that awaits us, I fear the picture of the future is still unclear — confused, even.
To take just one example; despite all those freshly surfaced cycle lanes, over 40% of young adults in the UK are considering buying a car, according to Capgemini. A generation that has largely eschewed the car, and with whom manufacturers have grown increasingly frustrated, has taken Government advice to avoid public transport to heart and is buying a car for the first time. In China, by mid-April traffic congestion in many cities had returned to 90% of its previous levels, while public transport use remained low.
Don Draper would no doubt be smiling in the front seat of his Tesla.