No one knows what’s next. To make thoughtful decisions about the future, look at what’s already in progress.
The novel coronavirus has prompted rapid, large-scale shifts in work, business, education, and society. While it feels like these changes are sudden, most have been happening in slow motion for some time. They are just accelerated in the face of a crisis. While we are rightfully focused on the urgent need to slow the spread of the virus and survive the pandemic, we shouldn’t lose sight of longer-term social and economic impacts.
As we rewrite the rules for our new future in real time, we should do so thoughtfully. That means understanding our previous assumptions and how the current moment is upending them — and collectively deciding what is worth bringing with us into the post-pandemic future. It’s not difficult to imagine that the overnight shift to remote work and online learning will spark profound changes to business and education. But that’s not all:
1. A fragile global economy.
While some quickly point to the coronavirus as the cause of our current economic situation, danger signs have been flashing for some time. In the 20th century, booming population growth led to booming economic growth. The rise of the nuclear family boosted production and sales of consumer packaged goods, appliances, vehicles, and energy. But in the 21st century, our population growth has slowed, raising questions about how to plan for sustainability and prosperity when you can’t depend on growth. Within a few short months, COVID-19 has brought an end to the longest expansion in U.S. history, exposing flaws in the underpinnings of our global economy.
2. The rise of the city-state.
America is unique in that there is a delicate balance between the political rights and powers established by federal law and those of individual states. Unlike other modern democracies, cities and states also have different expectations of the federal government’s responsibility. In recent years, the federal-state relationship has been on the rocks, with states challenging or refusing to comply with federal law, and federal government retaliation against individual cities and states. These tensions are on full display during the current pandemic as barbs are exchanged between governors and the federal government. In the absence of a national, coordinated response, individual states and regions appear to be harnessing power, forming alliances, and even checking each other for the common good.
3. Our approach to an aging society.
Medical advancements have increased global life expectancy — vaccinations help people avoid disease entirely, and drug development allows people to live with chronic diseases like diabetes and even cancer. Globally, for the first time in history, there are more people over 64 than children under 5. However, we have made very few public health investments in protecting this large, vulnerable population. Life spans have been projected to decrease if we did not put protections in place; the arrival of the new coronavirus, which disproportionately takes the lives of the elderly, has only accelerated this reality.
4. Healthcare in America.
The slow march to affordable healthcare has sped up as some insurers agree to waive COVID-19 fees. Meanwhile, as individual states face shortages of PPE, ventilators, and essential medicines, hospitals are calling on the federal government to boost the national stockpile. Given the economic toll, it’s increasingly difficult to imagine the U.S. emerging from this crisis without some type of national healthcare plan and required infrastructure. That will likely include advances in health data interoperability, affordable healthcare, and efforts to increase domestic production of medicines and medical equipment.
5. Work from home, remote work, and distributed teams.
In recent years, ardent champions of flexible work hours, remote work, and entirely distributed teams have shared how they get the job done. This gradual trend from the office to remote work, and our underlying internet infrastructure, is now experiencing a massive litmus test as the majority of U.S. states have issued stay-at-home orders. However, it’s important to know that not every job can be done remotely, and not every employee has the ability to safely work from home. With no other choice but working at home, we will find out when place matters most.
6. Distance learning.
The rise of internet penetration and the investment in accessible platforms have resulted in an opportunity for anyone, anywhere, to attain an education. But for the most part, pre-schoolers to graduate students still attend a physical school. Or at least they did until schools closed in efforts to flatten the coronavirus curve. While American schools are notoriously underfunded, some systems are now making devices available to students, providers are offering free or low-cost internet access, and platforms are giving access to tools that support remote learning.
While bad actors have long disseminated misinformation, social networks have accelerated the speed at which it can travel. In early February 2020, the World Health Organization characterized the coronavirus outbreak and accompanying response as an infodemic, “an overabundance of information — some accurate and some not — that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.” As a result, publishers and big tech have given up valuable advertising space in support of ground truth to protect the public.
8. Mental health, anxiety, and loneliness.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, there was the loneliness pandemic. Three in five Americans say they are lonely, and across the pond, the U.K. had already instituted a plan for addressing it, going so far as to appoint a Minister of Loneliness. As social distancing is our first defense against the coronavirus, governments are acting quickly to ensure that stopping one pandemic does not inadvertently create another. Longer term, questions remain regarding our future norms of social and emotional proximity.
9. Commercial real estate.
Both office and retail real estate have been undergoing dramatic shifts over the past decade — from the rise and fall of WeWork to the changing face of street-level businesses. CEOs are asking questions about where work should happen and whether it makes sense to keep expensive office space on the books. Retail, on the other hand, has been hit by Amazon on one side and increased rents on the other. The result: changing consumer behavior, empty storefronts, and pleas for city intervention. In some cases, we have observed the food truck-ification of retail; when the rent is too high, the bike repair shop becomes a mobile bike repair truck. The pandemic has added another dimension: With all non-essential businesses closed, save for deliveries, we must re-evaluate the purpose and value of commercial real estate.
10. Labor rights.
Labor is having a moment. Protests, walkouts, and unionization have become hallmarks of early 21st-century industry. In the face of a pandemic, labor has a big proof point. Is any company really going to dial back on paid sick days going forward? Or not invest in employee protections against disease? Meanwhile, the foundations of recent years may create leverage for those suddenly out of a job. We may finally see more organizations decide that people come first, making an economic argument to investors that human-friendly policies pay dividends in reduced turnover and improved business outcome.
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