How will the COVID-19 pandemic permanently change society?
The COVID-19 pandemic is ongoing, but one thing is already clear: The worst novel respiratory disease outbreak in a century has dramatically changed societies and economies the world over.
Many of those changes will outlive the pandemic itself, which will eventually end. And many will have direct financial implications for individuals, families, and entire groups of people, whether by creating or curtailing career opportunities or changing the assumptions we make about the government’s responsibilities to provide for people on the lower rungs of the economic ladder.
In some cases, the pandemic is likely to accelerate or heighten trends that were ongoing before the crisis. For example, we’ve seen a marked uptick in the rate of increase in online video consumption since the pandemic began, and it’s reasonable to expect higher video consumption rates to stick around even after the pandemic abates. Other long-lasting outcomes probably would not have occurred were it not for the outbreak, at least not on the same time scale or for the same reasons.
How COVID-19 Will Change Society & the Global Economy
This list of potential changes arising out of the coronavirus pandemic is inherently speculative, and the extent of many or most depends on the eventual duration and toll of the pandemic — variables we won’t know for sure until it’s officially behind us.
Still, individuals, small businesses, public officials, and anyone else with a stake in society should consider the implications of these changes as the worst global health crisis since the Great Depression continues to unfold.
As we begin to think about how to pick up the pieces, we should be mindful that the future could look very different from the past. The big question is which changes will impact your life the most.
1. Broader Acceptance of Flexible & Remote Work Arrangements
According to Global Workplace Analytics, a business consultancy, 56% of American workers hold jobs that are at least partially compatible with remote work. Yet before the COVID-19 crisis, fewer than 4% of the workforce worked from home more than half the time, and less than half worked from home at all.
That leaves a lot of room for growth in remote and flexible work arrangements. Global Workplace Analytics predicts that up to 30% of the workforce will work from home multiple days per week within the next two years, a dramatic increase from present levels due to:
- The now-obvious need for disaster preparedness and contingency planning in businesses of all sizes
- Reduced fear (and greater trust) of remote work arrangements among bosses who’ve adopted remote work arrangements out of necessity
- The increased efficiency and reduced cost of dispersed workforces that require less centralized office space
- The environmental and safety benefits of working remotely — namely, lower carbon emissions and fewer crashes with fewer cars on the road
This is likely to occur even in the absence of further lockdowns ordered in response to virus flare-ups, and it should prove durable even after most people receive COVID-19 vaccinations.
With only one in five workers “most excited” about returning to in-person work after they’re vaccinated, the remote work genie will be difficult to put back in the bottle.
2. Acceleration of Automation in White-Collar Professions
Labor and technology experts have predicted for some time that a cresting wave of artificial intelligence-aided process automation will displace hundreds of millions of white-collar workers worldwide in the coming years.
The Brookings Institution predicts some degree of disruption in virtually every white-collar sector. And a broader McKinsey study from late 2017 predicted about 400 million workers worldwide would be displaced and up to 375 million would need to switch occupations by 2030.
The sudden severe recession precipitated by the coronavirus pandemic could accelerate the development or implementation of AI solutions that make white-collar work more efficient and allow fewer humans to do the same amount of work (or more).
Because automation processes occur on timescales of months or years, shifts attributable to the pandemic could become apparent only well after the COVID-19 crisis is in the rearview for good.
But that’s cold comfort for affected workers. And though economists have been pleasantly surprised by the pace of the economic recovery from lockdown-induced recession, it’s likely that the automation genie — like its remote work counterpart — is already out of the bottle.
3. Broader Adoption of Telemedicine & Remote Consultations
By facilitating remote consultations between health care providers and patients with mild cases of suspected COVID-19 — thereby reducing strain on hospital emergency departments — telemedicine (medical videoconferencing) has already proved indispensable in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Telemedicine has also been a boon for health care providers concerned about their clinics and specialty practices becoming hot zones for the disease. Rather than bring in patients for scheduled or noncritical walk-in appointments, telemedicine allows providers to consult with them remotely and dispense treatment advice, write prescriptions for medication, and recommend in-person consultation as needed.
Telemedicine assists COVID-era social distancing measures as well. Though state-mandated distancing measures and “stay at home” (lockdown) orders generally treated veterinary practices as essential businesses cleared to remain open, vets themselves were loath to promote human-to-human viral transmission in waiting and exam rooms.
In late March 2020, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration relaxed restrictions on vets’ use of telemedicine, clearing the way for widespread adoption of the technology for noncritical consultations. Even as lockdown orders lifted, many vets retained their newfound flexibility.
Whether the present telemedicine boon outlasts the COVID-19 pandemic could depend on how the insurance industry chooses to treat the technology — and whether Congress forces its hand. Currently, Medicare covers telemedicine on par with in-person services, but there’s no set standard for the private insurance industry.
Much as they’d like to use telemedicine, patients whose insurance plans favor in-person consultations over remote consultations might have no choice but to continue seeing their doctors in person, with all the inconvenience that entails for those in ill health, remote locations, or both.
4. Strengthening of the United States’ Social Safety Net
Public sorrow turned to fury when news broke that the 17-year-old California teen who died after testing positive for COVID-19 was turned away from a Southern California urgent care clinic for lack of health insurance. The teen’s case was complex, and COVID-19 may not have been the proximate cause of death.
But the clinic’s refusal to treat an uninsured patient in obvious distress became the latest in a seemingly endless series of injustices wrought by a fragmented medical system that all too often appears to prioritize revenue over quality of care.
Meanwhile, countless COVID-19 patients who do receive inpatient care can expect eye-popping invoices for that care — bills they can’t reasonably hope to pay without going into debt. Many will liquidate their retirement savings, take drastic measures to raise funds, or take out personal loans to pay off medical bills.
The COVID-19 pandemic is sure to change the course of the United States’ health care policy in some way. What we don’t know yet is whether that change will manifest as a decisive political shift in favor of a universal health care solution like “Medicare for All” or more incremental efforts to increase health care access, tamp down costs, and perhaps provide a public alternative to private health insurance plans. The outlines of such incremental change are visible in proposed legislation like President Biden’s tax plan and the American Families Plan.
The pandemic-induced downturn and subsequent economic fallout could influence the policymaking consensus around other aspects of the U.S. social safety net as well:
- Unemployment Insurance and Other Employee Protections. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), a massive economic stimulus package enacted by the U.S. federal government in late March 2020, included a federally subsidized increase in unemployment benefits and increases the maximum length of time laid-off workers can claim unemployment by 50%. It also included mandatory paid sick leave for many employees quarantining or convalescing due to COVID-19, among other new employee protections. Expect growing public pressure to make these changes permanent, especially if future outbreaks and lockdowns result in further job losses.
- Added Protections for Gig and Contract Workers. The pandemic collapsed demand for all manner of services typically filled by gig workers and independent contractors, such as ridesharing and handyman services. As nontraditional employees, these contingent workers aren’t eligible for unemployment and aren’t covered by the CARES Act payroll subsidies, putting them at a significant financial disadvantage as compared to laid-off workers. As the full scale of the economic fallout becomes apparent, momentum could build for a policy response that strengthens the safety net for these increasingly indispensable workers.
- Universal Basic Income. Economists credit the three rounds of direct stimulus payments authorized by Congress during the pandemic with sustaining elevated economic activity during the pandemic-induced recession and, along with concerted action by the Federal Reserve Bank of the United States, preventing a full-blown financial crisis. As this ordeal exposes the persistent economic uncertainty experienced by millions of Americans — even those with steady jobs — the idea of doling out regular cash assistance payments to a broader swathe of the public seems likely to gain mainstream acceptance. Whether universal basic income ever becomes policy is a separate question.
- Expansion of the Child Tax Credit and Family Leave Policies. The American Rescue Plan, a nearly $2 trillion economic relief package passed in early 2021, contained a significant (if temporary) expansion of the child tax credit for low- and middle-income Americans. President Biden’s American Families Plan proposes extending that expansion for several more years, ultimately with an eye to making it permanent, while instituting a national paid family leave scheme (which most other advanced economies have already). These measures aren’t guaranteed to become law, but they’d make life much easier for working parents if they did.
Meanwhile, momentum is building for a substantial increase to the federal minimum wage, which had remained at $7.25 per hour for more than a decade.
Although not technically part of state or federal governments’ social safety nets, the minimum wage is a critical backstop for millions of low-income workers who struggle to make ends meet at $7.25 per hour. Any increase in the wage would measurably improve the quality of life for workers who saw their take-home pay rise as a result.
5. Significant Changes in Travel Patterns & Traveler Behavior
Globally, no industry has been hit so hard by the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic than the travel industry. The pandemic has already resulted in at least one airline failure, the U.K.’s low-cost Flybe, according to Voice of America. More are almost certain to follow, even with unprecedented financial support from governments around the globe.
Don’t bet against travelers eventually taking to the skies again in greater numbers than before. But do expect post-pandemic travel to look different. Some long-term travel trends that could emerge from the COVID-19 ordeal include:
- Greater Adoption of Travel Insurance. As the virus spread and countries shut their borders to ever-broader groups of travelers, those with the foresight to purchase travel insurance had the last laugh. Those who weren’t so lucky won’t make the same mistake again, boosting the fortunes of travel insurance carriers like World Nomad and credit cards with travel insurance benefits, one of the most popular credit card fringe benefits.
- Downsizing (and Perhaps Worse) for the Cruise Industry. The cruise industry performed poorly in the early stages of the crisis. Several ships experienced deadly COVID-19 outbreaks in February and March. Others drifted for weeks in search of ports willing to process fleeing passengers. And at least initially, some lines refused to relax no-refund policies for travelers with justifiable concerns about spending days in close quarters with thousands of potentially infected shipmates. Looking ahead, the industry’s efforts to secure bailout funding from the U.S. government is complicated by the fact that most ostensibly U.S.-based cruise ships fly foreign flags to skirt U.S. tax and labor laws, reducing their owners’ clout with U.S. policymakers. Nor can it be argued that the cruise industry is as critical to global commerce as the airline industry. That all adds up to a very uncertain future, even after the pandemic passes.
- Less Nonessential Business Travel. Without quantifying the expected shift, Global Workplace Analytics predicts that the COVID-19 pandemic will prompt executives to rethink the need for nonessential business travel for events like companywide meetings and conferences in favor of cheaper, more convenient virtual solutions. Such a change would undoubtedly suppress demand for air travel and further boost the fortunes of remote conferencing alternatives.
- Greater Emphasis on Cleanliness by Carriers and Travelers Alike. The first SARS outbreak, which began in China in 2002 and mainly affected Asian countries, instilled or reinforced a culture of public hygiene far stricter and more pervasive than that to which Western travelers are accustomed. That culture and the related investment in public health measures have proved resilient — and may have been decisive in regional governments’ largely successful efforts to mitigate the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. After COVID-19, expect travelers from other parts of the world to take more precautions to prevent illness while traveling, such as wearing masks in public and using hand sanitizer liberally. Expect carriers and other travel merchants to encourage or require these measures, as well. A study by 57Hours, a clearinghouse for guided outdoor adventures, found that 71% of guides said they’d take precautions such as limiting group size, mandating health testing, and requiring face coverings after resuming normal business activity.
6. Structural Changes in the Commercial Real Estate Market
The market for office real estate has long been under pressure due to the rise in coworking and widespread changes in office design that have reduced the square footage required for each white-collar worker.
By forcing millions of white-collar workers to make the sudden adjustment to full-time remote work, COVID-19 could exacerbate this pressure in the short-term and medium-term while accelerating the longer-term shift to more remote work that was already underway.
Such a shift could have ramifications beyond the office market. Dense, amenity-rich cities like New York continue to grow, to be sure. But an increase in remote work could reduce the prevalence of long-distance commuting and average commute times, especially in major metropolitan areas where commuting from affordable, far-flung suburbs to job-rich central cities is commonplace.
Falling roadway congestion and commuter transit ridership could result — a boon for the environment, if not the aging public transit infrastructure.
7. Accelerating Growth in Digital Retail & Logistics (& Related Gig Work)
Despite herculean support efforts by state and federal authorities, many thousands of U.S. businesses that depend on in-person customer traffic will not survive the COVID-19 pandemic.
The toll of pandemic-felled businesses will rise every week that enforced social distancing measures remain in place — and likely for months afterward, as newly trepidatious customers agonize over whether it’s really safe to go out to eat or meet for coffee in a cramped cafe.
In the restaurant sector, that means delivery orders through digital delivery platforms like DoorDash could account for greater shares of total sales. Pressure on brick-and-mortar retailers to expand digital sales (or even shift to online-only e-commerce sales) could increase, with holdouts at higher risk of failure.
Accelerating growth in digital retail and rapid delivery will undoubtedly benefit the tech businesses that offer such services — not just online retail behemoths like Amazon, but localized logistics providers like DoorDash and Instacart as well.
And restaurant server and store clerk jobs could be more difficult to find in a world where fewer people buy things in person. But the increase in gig work opportunities afforded by more widespread shipping and delivery could provide some relief for workers.
8. Greater Pressure on Commission-Based Sales
Consumers’ increased comfort with digital retail could have ramifications beyond consumables and low-cost home goods. Despite relentless advances in virtual showrooming technology — such as virtual home tours and 360-degree product views — the commission-based sales model remains popular in real estate and some durable goods categories (such as cars, flooring, and appliances).
Look for dealerships and durable goods retailers to reduce or eliminate reliance on commissioned salespeople in the years ahead and to experiment with low-commission online sales that never require the customer and salesperson to be in the same room. And expect a rise in for-sale-by-owner home listings aided by powerful virtual home tour apps as well.
No one knows how or when the COVID-19 pandemic will end, let alone what sort of new normal will emerge on the other side. However, it’s safe to bet that humanity will look back on the pandemic as an epoch-making event — a solid line between a pre-COVID “before” and a post-COVID “after.”
Here’s to the fervent hope that we don’t squander the opportunity to learn everything from it we possibly can.