Ian Dury was a famous English singer and musician who wrote the classic rock song “Reasons To Be Cheerful” issued in 1979 and which resonates even more strongly in this current crisis. Whilst the lyrics aren’t the most profound, he mentions various people, places and facts which gave him reasons to be cheerful (inter alia the Bolshoi Ballet, Buddy Holly, Elvis and, more pertinently, “curing smallpox”). This latter item is particularly poignant given that Ian Dury suffered from polio and that the world is on the brink of eliminating this disease as well once and for all.
Without wishing in any way to underestimate the current situation, Norman Alex has taken inspiration from Ian Dury to compile our own list of reasons to be cheerful and to “look on the bright side of life”.
Part One – Health Versus Wealth
In general terms, the world has never been healthier or wealthier. For people in the western world, there is much talk of new generations being less wealthy than their parents for the first time and of falling life expectancy. Whilst this is certainly true in certain cases, never in the history of the world have more people been moving out of poverty and living longer. Hans Rosling explores these positive trends in great depth in his bestselling book “Factfulness” which is, according to Bill Gates, the one book above all that everyone should read. And Bill Gates knows what he’s talking about.
However, in the developed world most people are blinkered to the realities of life for the majority of humanity in other countries. We worry about not having enough money to buy the new Tesla or seeing our bonus reduced because our company didn’t make as much money as last year. The average person in the developing world is more preoccupied with working hard so their children can go to school. And in great swathes of Africa and South East Asia, the daily preoccupation is still finding enough food to feed the family and survive for another day.
In recent times, however, there has definitely been a shift away from unbridled capitalism towards a more thoughtful and balanced model. A few years ago, I attended a seminar for wealth management companies in Monaco and was surprised to see someone sat in the front dressed in Tibetan monk’s clothes. I wondered, with some justification, what such a person was doing in one of the world’s focal centres of opulent wealth. I soon discovered that the monk was in fact a Frenchman called Matthieu Ricard who had been invited to give a talk on “How Much Money You Need To Be Happy”. Matthieu is, in fact, an eminent scientist who renounced his Western life and worldly goods to become a monk in the Himalayas 45 years ago.
The response he outlined in his fascinating talk was that you need enough to satisfy your basic needs and that any excess is more likely to lead to unhappiness than happiness. Obviously, such a criterion is relatively subjective and, as seen above, will probably depend on which part of the world you live in. However, there seems to be a definite change in attitude in the developed world as new generations begin to arrive in positions of responsibility. When I was starting my own career, it was the time of the “yuppie”. The definition of this word in the Cambridge Dictionary is “a young person who lives in a city, earns a lot of money and spends it doing fashionable things and buying expensive possessions”. Happy days indeed! But today there is little talk of yuppies. They appear to be a dying breed replaced by “Millenials” and “Generation Z”.
Whilst it seems to be generally accepted that Millenials are people born in the 1980s and 1990s and Generation Z are born at the beginning of the millennium, there is less consensus as to the precise characteristics of each group. There are, however, some clear trends with younger generations and especially Generation Z. They choose to spend money more on a short-term experience such as a holiday or concert over buying a material item. Travel is particularly popular, helped by the advent of budget airlines, with certain globetrotters gaining huge audiences on social media. Indeed, many young people would rather live in smaller apartments to spend less money on rent and more on seeing the world (although this is certainly dictated in part by the difficulty for younger people to get their feet on the first rung of the property ladder). In a word, their personal life seems to be more important to them than the acquisition of wealth.
Even economists are beginning to look at the measurement of success in less materialistic ways. Historically, the success of a country was based principally on their GDP per capita, but more recently emphasis has been placed on other criteria such as “Gross National Happiness”. This term was coined by the King of Bhutan in 1979 and has since been adopted wholly or partly by better-known parties. In 2011, the UN General Assembly passed a “happiness” resolution stating that this concept should be used as part of a holistic approach to development and is in effect a fundamental human right. There is even a Gross National Happiness organisation in the United States although most people would look more towards Scandinavia as the paradigm. Indeed, the Danish concept of “hygge” has become an untranslatable buzz word in recent times.
A similar shift is occurring in the financial community itself. Impact investment has become one of the main themes emphasising as it does an ethical and socially responsible approach to capitalism, even if the returns are diminished in purely economic terms. In the corporate world, the mantra of “shareholder value” used to be repeated in quasi-religious terms and to the exclusion of most other considerations. But recently CEOs of some leading companies have stated openly that they should give equal consideration to employees, clients and other partners. Indeed, I believe that company law in many countries may be modified to reflect this self-evident fact. It’s also interesting to note that, during the current crisis, many governments have asked companies to renounce the payment of dividends, a final nail in the coffin of the unadulterated shareholder value principle.
The non-payment of dividends by large corporations, especially the banks and oil companies, is for me symptomatic of the paradigm shift set into motion by the current crisis. Countries could easily have continued with business as usual putting the economy first. The Spanish flu crisis of 1918-20 is said to have killed about 50 million people but was probably no more dangerous or infectious than Covid-19. Its effect was so deadly precisely because the world continued its activities as before and initially concealed the pandemic. Indeed, it’s known as Spanish flu not because it originated in Spain but because Spain was the only country to openly discuss the crisis at first. Admittedly, the world was in the throes of a world war when the epidemic broke out but a conscious decision was made to continue massive troop movements even when the consequences were more or less known.
This time, with one or two exceptions, the world has made a conscious decision to put the economy on hold to save lives, to put health before wealth. Hopefully it’s possible that the number of deaths is no higher than seasonal flu, although this is probably optimistic. But without the rules of confinement and social distancing, the losses would certainly have been significantly higher and potentially close to those of the Spanish flu pandemic. We’re not in the middle of a world war and medical advances over the last hundred years have been huge but these facts are countered by the prevalence of international travel and globalisation. The impact on the economy will be huge and there will certainly be “collateral damage” in terms of health issues caused by the medicine rather than the illness, but these will surely be outweighed by the number of saved lives. When we recover from the crisis, it seems to me inevitable that the movement away from wealth towards health will continue at an accelerated pace.