Marcia Mogelonsky
Marcia Mogelonsky, Ph. D. is the Director of Insight, Food & Drink, at Mintel. Her expertise focuses on consumer behavior across a range of categories.

It is true that taking a look back is a good way to understand the future. History tells us that COVID-19 is not the first pandemic, but it is our pandemic, and we are “owning” it with a flurry of bespoke hand sanitizers and artisanal face masks.

While we are putting our 2020 imprint on these artifacts of the new cleanliness theater, we have slipped into the habit of referring to the entire gestalt of COVID-19 as “the new normal.” However, that term is not new. The “new normal” was a term that came into the language as a way of describing financial conditions after the financial crisis of 2007-2008. It was recycled to describe the aftermath of the 2008–2012 global recession, which would be the “new, new normal,” for those keeping score.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic is a different situation – and it is still a moving target, waiting for resolution in the form of some sort of remediation, either a vaccine or a medicine that will control the virus’s effect on humans.

Given COVID-19’s ferocity and its speed – and its potential to return – the situation we find ourselves in now demands a different descriptor: we are in the next normal.

“New” is static, “next” is always looking forward

To understand the difference between “the new normal” and “the next normal,” consider the meaning of the words and their role in language. “New” describes something that is current, contemporary, or present-day. And, what is new today quickly becomes old. A new car, for example, is “new” for just 200 miles, according to automotive experts. A new idea is “new” until it is disseminated across social media platforms.

But “next” has a more complex meaning, it suggests movement forward. It means “the thing/person/situation that follows the current thing/person/situation.” And that’s what our current state of affairs is, because of COVID-19. Since the progression of the disease remains unknown, there are many more “next normals” that will challenge us until the virus is resolved.

This “next normal” is our current reality and its parameters vary from market-to-market

Coping with lockdowns
For many consumers, lock-downs lasted as much as two-to-three months, and in some markets, containment rules are still in place. Even in un-locked markets, some are still working from home, homeschooling, and coping with a limited “spatial reality.”

Starting to leave the safety of home
As consumers start to emerge, they are tentative, choosing which activities to resume and which to place on the back burner. In some markets, the “normal” seems almost like the “old normal.” But in others, there are still many obstacles to tackle.

Looking for reassurance “on the outside”
Emerging from the cocoon of secure spaces, consumers are facing a world that demands clearly displayed hygiene rules. We are loath to go into stores or restaurants that do not display the support we expect: masks, rules, social distancing.

Economies teetering on the brink
The current “next normal” is different from the normal we left when we closed our doors. Unemployment is high across markets, and opportunities are low. Prices are rising, as are the other hallmarks of a recessionary economy.

The current “next normal” is a raw reality

The pandemic emphasizes the fractured societies that so many of us live in, and in some countries, those lines fell apart completely in the midst of “sheltering in place.” Social activism in the US has pushed the virus out of the headlines; other markets such as Brazil are also dealing with political and social issues beyond COVID-19.

This is our current “next normal.” It is not one factor that is contributing to economic and social upheaval. COVID-19 may have been the catalyst, but it took more than the virus to change the direction of the world.

This is a situation unlike the result of the crash of 2007-2008 or the crisis of 2012. It’s not that “new normal.”And it is not exactly the same as the world after the civil unrest of 1968. Not that “new normal,” either. Overarching all of the civil and financial unrest is a bigger “elephant in the room:” an as-yet-contained global disease.

COVID-19 is not gone; it is our “next normal” and the one after that

There are so many unanswered questions about the pandemic: is it over? Will we have a second wave? Or even a third wave? Will there be a vaccine? Or another type of mitigation?

Some have tired of the virus; in many markets, headlines touting a “flattened curve” suggest that the worst is over and that we can adjust to the “normal” we have now.

But, this normal, the one that has emerged as the first wave of the virus has become more of a distraction than a concern, is only the current “next normal.” We should adjust to it, but we should not be complacent.

And perhaps that is the best reason to embrace the concept of a “next normal.” We adjusted to a “new normal” last time we had one – we challenged and absorbed it, and it faded from memory as economies improved. But, given the developments of the past few months, we must remain ready for what will come next.