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We’re all ‘forced’ to stay home and work in sweat pants… but are we falling in love with our invisible oppressor? Andrew Dickens asks whether we’ll ever want to go out even if we can

A few weeks ago I used an iron. It took me a few minutes to find the iron because I’d forgotten where it lives (it’s been a while). I used it to iron a shirt and some jeans — also unseen for some time — because I was ‘going out’. It felt weird.

Many Londoners might relate. Since coronavirus restrictions began in March, we’ve become used to 24-hour shapeless clothing (so much so that there are warnings of a national leisurewear shortage) as our constricted lives have turned us into quasi-recluses. We swerve strangers like they’ve bathed in raw sewage.

Most people now forced to work from home do so gladly. Going to the pub has felt like an adventure while stepping on to a bus still feels daunting. But while it began as an irritating blend of caution and control, I’ve found myself enjoying this homebody lifestyle. I call it Lockholm Syndrome. I’m falling in love with my invisible jailer.

I’m lucky, of course. I have work and can do it comfortably from home. I’ve got a wife and dog to keep me company. I’ve got a garden and the unholy trinity of Sky, Netflix and Amazon Prime. These are not luxuries afforded to everyone. But there are others like me. A study by the Nuffield Foundation back in June found a third of people in the UK were ‘enjoying’ lockdown — a sizeable minority of similarly fortunate people. So what’s to love?

‘Many of us were at breaking point,’ says psychologist and broadcaster Honey Langcaster-James. ‘Being forced to stop certain activities has enabled people to catch up with themselves and do things that are healthy. I’ve learnt the healing properties and joy that comes from simple things, like watching a bird fly past or a walk in a green space. I now know that if I’m feeling stressed out, these things can do marvels.’

And some love affairs linger. In the summer, the rules were looser than my trousers and yet London still didn’t feel its usual packed self. Trains and Tubes were actually comfortable to use. Shops provided a pleasantly tranquil retail experience. Communal spaces in general were less elbow-y. People, it appeared, were choosing to stay in — and that was after just a few weeks of proper curtailment.

Will we ever want to leave our homes again?

Despite cautious optimism over potentially effective vaccines, one of their creators, Professor Uğur Şahin, co-founder of the German biotechnology company BioNTech, doesn’t expect ‘normality’ until next winter. Which means we could still be beholden to an impenetrable multi-dimensional tier system for months to come. That being so, could some of us become permanently conditioned by Lockholm Syndrome? And how would that impact our lives?

‘Lockdown is already creating a lot of inequality,’ says Graham Loomes, professor of economics and behavioural science at Warwick Business School. ‘Some might save by staying home while hundreds of thousands on reduced incomes are pushed further into debt. The sense of inequality might intensify [if increased working from home continues]. People who have to go to work every single day and wish they didn’t will see people, often in better-paid jobs in the first place, not having to and reaping the benefits.’

As well as this new kind of class divide, Loomes predicts winners and losers on the high street, too. ‘I think increased online shopping and food deliveries will definitely persevere,’ he says. ‘I also think it might be good for suburban businesses at the expense of the city centre, which has relied on the trade of commuters. That rebalancing is a likely consequence.’

But will we change for good? Old habits die hard and new ones are tricky to instil. Ben Voyer, a professor in behavioural science at ESCP Business School, believes large-scale societal shifts are unlikely, claiming that most of the population will go back to how they behaved before.
‘At a societal level though, I can’t see many long-term consequences,’ Voyer says. ‘We’ve had pandemics and wars and we overcame them, returning to pretty much normal. But when you’re in the midst of it, you don’t always appreciate that.

‘Cultures take decades to change. The way society and our economy was working before with globalisation and having very intertwined business and social activities — all of these were answering a profound human need for socialisation.’

So Lockholm Syndrome might not cause a revolution, but it will start some ripples. Those ‘positive habits’? Maybe they could encompass the realisation that quite a large number of our ‘old normal’ nights out were less preferable to nights in, searching the aforementioned unholy trinity for something far more fulfilling than sitting in a pub counting the minutes until the clock strikes ‘it’s okay to go home’. I’m putting away my iron. It might be even more of a while this time.