Corporate Governance

2020 is the year that might save us. Here's why

Staff members check body temperatures of the passengers arriving from the train from Wuhan to Hangzhou, at Hangzhou Railway Station ahead of the Chinese Lunar New Year in Zhejiang province, China January 23, 2020. China Daily via REUTERS

January 2020, temperature checks as visitors arrive ahead of the Chinese New Year. COVID-19 was just limbering up. Image: REUTERS

Alex Liu
Managing Partner and Chairman, Kearney
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Corporate Governance

  • 2020 marks the start of a new 60-year cycle in the Chinese calendar, heralding a new beginning and a unique pivot point in history.
  • It’s also the year that all catastrophes seem to have converged at once: intolerance and persecution, climate and health.
  • But human beings are capable of surmounting the imponderable as the past 6 months have proven and maybe this year is the opportunity to right some of the wrongs, to reconcile and reckon.

On 25 January 2020, people around the world celebrated Chinese New Year, a day that signifies renewal and rebirth. And this one was especially meaningful, as 2020 is the start of a new 60-year cycle – composed of twelve lunar years times the five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal and water). It heralds a new beginning, and a unique pivot point in human history.

2020: a new cycle and a year of reckoning

There’s a magnitude and mysticism about the number 60 that threads through many cultures. It’s right there in the origin of mathematics with the ancient Sumerians and Babylonians. Related to that, it’s how we measure the passing of time – 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour. Outside the realms of the divine, it had served as the level at which characters in World of Warcraft entered the end-game. I’m not sure the association was deliberate, but I’d like to think so.

I’ve been thinking about the significance of the 60-year cycle and how it resonates with what’s going on in the world right now.

2020 was always foreseen as heralding a tectonic shift, as 1960 did before it. And yes, it has delivered.

At the end of January, the coronavirus was just limbering up, and it wouldn’t be too long before life as we knew it was turned upside down.

The convergence of catastrophes

But it’s not just about COVID-19. It seems like all catastrophes converged at once. The continuing fear that puts knees onto necks and razor wire between children and their parents. The persecution of individuals and groups for being the “wrong” shape, size, colour, gender, race, religion – you name it. The 30 million people who still live in slavery, here and now, in the 21st century. The death warrant hanging over our planet. It’s like living in a science fiction movie, where the only thing that’s certain is uncertainty. I call it the “no normal.”

Perhaps more disconcerting is that 60 years ago, the issues weren’t so very different. I was a baby on my mother’s lap on the plane from Taiwan to the United States, as my parents sought a better life. The Cold War across those straits and others was intensifying, we worried about being minorities in the deep South, the first sit-in protests against segregation took place, and it wasn’t safe – or legal – to be in a same-sex relationship in many countries. What has changed?

What's changed?

Should we feel hopeful or saddened about what’s been achieved during the past 60 years, and what it means for the next 60? It could be all too easy to slide into despair about the turmoil that surrounds us. But there’s another side to 2020. Even as we navigate the kinetic intensity of geopolitics, and continue to see the bitter evidence of endemic injustice, there is hope for the future and there is human aspiration.

Ever-symbolically, China, the UAE, and the US all recently launched spaceships to Mars, 60 years after then US President Kennedy announced a similar ambition to land on the Moon. At the same time, the early call for Black and women’s civil rights is now accelerating and achieving real global momentum.

My day job is to work with executives to find the way ahead. Right now, in this period of intense immediacy, we’ve all been forced to live and do business in the moment. In practical terms, that means finding the tools and agility to deal with the immediate impact of the pandemic and whatever happens next.

In terms of humanity, there’s a bigger picture we need to strive for, and anger – while a useful fuel – isn’t a viable long-term strategy. But hope and connection are.

We are 99.9 percent identical in our genetic makeup. We all know what it is to love, and to grieve. And we’ve already seen what we’re capable of when it really, truly, matters. We build hospitals in days. We move entire workforces and business models online. We collaborate on a global scale to share expertise and go after new solutions. There is great joy in surmounting the imponderable. And so there will be great joy in achieving true justice and equity.

The appetite for change is significant.

A chance to right the wrongs, reconcile and reckon

Call me superstitious, or fanciful, but maybe the ancients were onto something, the universe is speaking to us, and there’s a reason why we landed this throw of the dice. Maybe the next 60 years are our chance to right some of the wrongs, to reconcile and reckon. This is a moment that we must meet, and all such moments determine how we look at ourselves. What type of world do we want to leave behind us? What type of world do we want our children and theirs to inherit?

As John Lewis, who lived and worked through the entirety of the last cycle, wrote: "Ours is not the struggle of one day, one week, or one year. Ours is not the struggle of one judicial appointment or presidential term. Ours is the struggle of a lifetime, or maybe even many lifetimes, and each one of us in every generation must do our part."

Here’s to doing our part, for the next 60 years, and beyond.

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