Just over a year ago, as the extent of the pandemic began to dawn on the Western world, the limitations of our vocabulary to describe the events that lay in store for us became abundantly clear; the times were strange, uncertain and most of all, unprecedented.
There are, of course, precedents for our current predicament. This might be the first global pandemic in any of our lifetimes, but it is not the first global pandemic. This might be the first deadly public health crisis we have experienced first-hand, but we have all watched as vast regions have struggled to cope with outbreaks of SARS, Ebola and Zika virus in the last 20 years.
Each of these events have provided us with knowledge and understanding that can inform us about the way in which the future will unfold, but none of them present a roadmap for the way in which society will emerge from this pandemic, in this specific social, economic and geopolitical context.
As commentators grasped for optimistic takes at different stages of the pandemic, one recurring narrative was that as with the Spanish Flu in the 20th Century, the coronavirus pandemic would lay the ground for a ‘Roaring 2020s’. In this narrative, as consumers’ pent-up demand for social interaction and experiences collides with the coiled-spring effect of increased saving throughout lockdowns, we will experience an economic boom hedonistic enough to make Gatsby blush.
However, while there are lessons that we can learn from looking back at events of the past, the trends in place immediately prior to the pandemic, and the impact of the pandemic on their trajectories, provides a clearer – if less exciting – impression of our post-pandemic future.
Both at the outset of the pandemic in March 2020 and later in the year in November, we outlined the likely impact of the pandemic on the trajectories of trends that existed prior to Covid.
While the latest iteration of this report goes into significant depth on the accelerative – or decelerative – nature of the pandemic on these trends, below we outline some specific ways in which this event will shape society in ways that past precedents cannot help us to understand.
- Death of Distance: as economies ground to a halt around the world, there has been a significant erasure of the importance of distance across scale. Business travel – particularly by plane – increasingly seems like a thing of the past, while a shift in day to day patterns of work for the sizeable minority within advanced economies that work in offices means that distance will never be the same again.
- Green Concern: during times of adversity – in this instance a pandemic but also observed during economic crises – consumers prioritise the most pressing issue of the time while pushing others to the backs of their mind. Society has turned a corner when it comes to the environment, however, with environmental concern rebounding to its pre-pandemic level before the pandemic has even ended.
- Culture Wars: prior to the pandemic, the socio-political context of the UK was defined by polarisation and culture war sparked by the UK’s referendum on EU membership. This trend has been arrested significantly by the pandemic, with the British public’s acknowledgement that working together is the only way to beat the virus leading to a vast increase in togetherness on local and national scales.
- Positive Tech: In the years leading up to the pandemic, a pervasive, technophobic narrative had emerged; people were spending too much time on their phone, scrolling through social media platforms, and playing games and it was making us less healthy and less happy. As technology stepped into the breach, however, facilitating everything from pub quizzes to funerals, society has experienced a shift in perspective on tech, and one that is likely to last as technology allows us to lead more flexible lives.
There is, of course, a significant value in looking back in order to understand the future; much of our work on financial crises is borne of historical research.
However, as the Green Concern trend outlined above illustrates, just because a pattern of consumer values held in the 2000s and the 2010s (let alone the 1910s or 1920s), does not mean that it will hold in the 2020s.
In unprecedented times, a phrase which continues to accurately describe our present context, monitoring consumers’ attitudes and values, and using them to inform and re-evaluate predictions and projections is more important than ever.