2021 has barely begun and it has already become a year that won’t be easily forgotten. Though a cliche, it is something fundamentally correct.
A third national lockdown in the UK. The US Capitol being stormed by Trump supporters refusing to accept the election. Elon Musk became the richest man in the world. For journalists and those obsessed with current affairs, there is little reason to be bored.
Such a volume of groundbreaking events somewhat goes against the principle of a new year. When people aren’t writing their “New Year’s Resolutions”, there is often a general desire for a new year to be more peaceful, calmer and contain more certainty.
Naturally, we like to have as much control over our lives as possible. One where less spontaneous and frantic things happen is seen as the marker of a better year.
Strangely, we view the new year as the one turning point where this can happen. Although the calendar has been constructed to give humans a sense of control in an uncertain world, a new year is seen as the sole occasion where changing ourselves, and the lives of those around us are possible.
Simply because of what the calendar says, a calmer time at any other point of the year is viewed as impossible.
It’s understandable why a calmer 2021 would be desired. 2020 was a year of turmoil. Widely written off by nearly everyone as a terrible year best forgotten, the alteration in dates was symbolically viewed as a chance for something different to happen.
While widespread change took place in 2020, humans remained indoors, unable to influence political or social decisions.
When 2021 is discussed, it is often done so through wishing for less chaos and less upheaval. The pandemic is the definition of chaos and uncertainty. A new virus and disease few had ever heard of has forced people to alter their lives unexpectedly.
The new normal, though an uncomfortable phrase, was a reflection of the differences everyone had to experience and the altercations in how our lives progressed.
2021 is likely to be no different. Although numerous vaccines offer light at the end of the tunnel, there will have been changes from the pandemic that remain permanent.
People may carry on wearing masks even when it is no longer the law. Companies may decide that their employees should permanently work from home. The high street may never return. The changes that were believed to be temporary could now remain the norm.
Such changes when a new year arrives don’t always have to be greeted negatively. Altering the status quo was a tenet of progressive movements that strived for equality. Regarding the social norms as something that should carry on was anathema to these groups.
Whether it was fighting for racial, gender or sexual equality, ripping up the rule book and celebrating social upheaval was a driving force behind these groups. Indeed, although many challenges remain, new advancements and a different status quo today are only because of pioneers from the past.
Nonetheless, it is understandable why upheaval, when so much has taken place over the last 12 months, might initially feel disconcerting. Numerous families will have lost loved ones before their time. Friends may not have seen one another for months on end. Managing social change with those in our immediate household – or perhaps even alone – is hard.
That is why 2021 should be the year for reestablishing social connections. Apps like Zoom can only offer a fraction of the experience gained with in-person connections.
Dealing with social change and the events every new year brings can be tricky, but it shouldn’t be something that immediately frightens us. By being in the company of others, shared collective solidarity is possible, and allows for greater engagement and the spread of ideas.
No year should have to be like 2020 again. Instead of being driven solely by a virus and the actions of politicians the general public should now be at the heart of pursuing difference.
Driving democratic engagement and helping to spread social reforms, it could be a welcome way of achieving a fairer society and incentivising those in the next generations to get involved with political decisions.
Interestingly, this could entail looking at what parts of the ‘new normal’ should remain and also what would benefit from going back to the old, pre-COVID world where possible. By engaging as many people as possible in that discussion, a better decision will likely be made.
While not an easy feat, 2021 should be the year where that is at least attempted.