7 New Predictions for a Post-Pandemic World
Expect cryptocurrency booms, intrusive biometric tracking, and the mainstream embrace of universal basic income
In the early months of the pandemic, I published my predictions about how the coronavirus pandemic would reshape our lives. While many of these predictions are currently bearing out, it is increasingly clear that the disruptions caused by Covid-19 are only just getting started. The magnitude of any crisis is a function of both its striking force and of the strength — or fragility — of the system it attacks. Long before this pandemic, developed societies were plagued by widening inequalities and staring down a technological abyss. In 2021 and beyond, the knock-on effects of shifts accelerated by the pandemic will cascade through our institutions and individual behaviors.
Here are seven additional shifts we should expect in the aftermath of the pandemic era. Some will create enormous challenges, but many will open opportunities to revise our foundational assumptions about economics, business, and public policy so that, after the public health war has been won, we effectively mobilize to take advantage of abandoned and updated norms.
1. Equity markets will continue to soar, as fears of inflation drive commodity and crypto booms
So far, Congress has approved pandemic relief packages worth more than $4.1 trillion. It funded these outlays not by raising taxes or selling bonds to the public, but rather by printing new money, marking an unprecedented expansion in the overall money supply. Roughly one-fourth of all circulating U.S. dollars was printed in the past year; much of it has ended up in the capital markets, sending financial assets rocketing to new record highs. Generous stimulus checks and pent-up demand from months in lockdown have also left consumers with record-high savings rates, which could propel a post-pandemic spending spree.
Taken together, these factors will make investors increasingly skittish about inflation. This will drive demand for traditional store-of-value commodities, like gold and silver, and fuel the continued ascent of cryptocurrencies like bitcoin that are valued against a finite supply of coins rather than a basket of other currencies. Banking giants like JPMorgan, Guggenheim, financier Paul Tudor Jones, and insurer MassMutual have already bet hundreds of millions of dollars on bitcoin’s future as a critical hedge against USD devaluation, publicly touting price targets upward of $400,000 per bitcoin. Enterprise companies will increasingly follow their lead, as most corporate balance sheets come to include some small percentage of crypto-denominated reserves.
2. While Amazon builds its empire, Shopify will keep bolstering the rebels
The online retail revolution has arrived ahead of schedule. Merchants that once relied on dominating retail shelf space or physical proximity to their customers will need to learn to sell online; in practice, this means either joining crowded direct-to-consumer markets or capitulating to Amazon, which controls nearly half of all U.S. e-commerce (and counting). This will set the stage for e-commerce wars pitting Amazon against effectively everyone else.
Shopify will lead the anti-Amazon coalition, by continuing to help level the e-commerce playing field for smaller online sellers. The company’s core innovation was to leverage its economies of scale to provide sophisticated, affordable e-commerce tools rivaling those of the largest incumbents. It has since expanded to off-line logistics and fulfillment, hoping to one day match Amazon’s customer service, fast shipping, and easy returns. It does not, however, help merchants find and attract customers online. To avoid an “Amazon takes all” future, that will need to change.
For independent merchants to survive in Amazon’s e-commerce future, Shopify will need to provide an alternative.
The central challenge for Shopify — and independent sellers in general — is that Amazon effectively controls online demand. A full 82% of U.S. households have Amazon Prime memberships, and most Prime members start their shopping journeys on Amazon, now the second largest search engine in the U.S. Because this lowers customer acquisition costs, more sellers join Amazon Marketplace. Amazon’s vast selection attracts more buyers, which further drives down customer acquisition costs on the platform. For independent merchants to survive in Amazon’s e-commerce future, Shopify will need to provide an alternative by embracing a strategy focused on localizing and personalizing e-commerce.
Independent sellers will never match Amazon’s economies of scale and scope, but they can outperform it with consumers who want to shop in their community, support brands whose values they share, or embrace compelling and highly differentiated brands. For users to find those merchants, however, they need a searchable platform, which Shopify is ideally positioned to provide by expanding its Shop app into something that looks more like a local marketplace.
3. The rapid transition to a gig economy will upend U.S. health insurance markets
To increase their resilience to future shocks, businesses will look to limit the stickiness of their cost structures: Fixed asset ownership will go down, office leases will get shorter, and full-time positions will be automated away or replaced with short-term contract workers. This transition is well underway in industries like grocery delivery; eventually, it will affect all sectors of the U.S. labor market.
By dissociating health coverage from employment, this will make U.S. labor markets more efficient, boost small business formation, and dramatically improve the health outcomes of Americans in the long term.
The accelerated transition to a gig economy will upend U.S. health insurance markets, which rely on employment-based group insurance to shield risk pools from adverse selection pressures. When a bloc of employees, rather than only its sickest members, receives coverage from an employer, young and healthy employees effectively subsidize those with greater coverage needs. This balance will not hold when tens of millions of gig workers suddenly become responsible for buying their own insurance. Many — particularly the young and healthy — will choose to go without. Those who buy insurance will disproportionately choose cheaper plans with high deductibles and bare-bones coverage. This will make the more comprehensive plans that older, less healthy Americans need prohibitively expensive.
The U.S. population is aging fast, and 75% Americans 65 or older live with multiple chronic health conditions. This means the share of Americans unable to afford quality coverage will quickly become untenable, eventually ending the country’s failed 50-year experiment trusting market incentives to provide for its critical health care needs. A two-tiered system will replace it, in which those who can afford to buy private insurance and receive exceptional, concierge medical services will do so, while some version of “Medicare for All” administered by the federal government provides for the needs of everyone else. By dissociating health coverage from employment, this will make U.S. labor markets more efficient, boost small business formation, and dramatically improve the health outcomes of Americans in the long term.
4. Pandemic monitoring will mark a new era of mass digital surveillance
The United States’ failure to contain Covid-19 — and the relative success of East Asian countries like Taiwan and South Korea — brought about the twin realizations that pandemic readiness is both critical to national security and virtually impossible without sophisticated digital tools. As public institutions, businesses, and individuals brace for the next pandemic, the scale and scope of digital surveillance will dramatically increase, permanently recasting the balance between privacy and public safety.
While the mass adoption of wearable health trackers will drive significant improvements to population-level health, it will also create vast, highly individualized datasets on users’ preferences and behavior.
The expansion of mass digital surveillance will be felt most quickly in the workplace. To ease the safe return to work, employers will use tools like IBM’s “health pass” — a blockchain-based registry of biometric information — to verify employees’ vaccination status, and wearable health trackers to remind employees to socially distance at work, monitor for signs of disease, and contact-trace efficiently in the event of an outbreak. Gradually, businesses will begin to track the identity, inoculation status, and potential disease state of everyone on their premises. In the longer run, biometric passports will become standard entry requirements in all kinds of crowded public spaces, creating a record of every individual who enters or exits an office, school, airport, museum, concert hall, or sports stadium.
While the mass adoption of wearable health trackers will drive significant improvements to population-level health, it will also create vast, highly individualized datasets on users’ preferences and behavior. Wearables collect real-time data on users’ sleep, physical activity, heart rate variability, and more. (Halo, a health tracker developed by Amazon, records its users’ speech and tracks the tone of their voice.) These datasets harbor rich predictive signals, which advertisers and political groups will use to target their messaging with unprecedented specificity. As they learn to nudge purchase decisions or voting behavior to serve commercial or political objectives, mass biometric surveillance could chip away at not only our privacy, but democracy itself.
5. The dawning code wars will put lives — not just data — at stake
The hackers we know and fear — those who steal payment information, knock websites off-line, or spy on enemy governments — have historically operated only in the digital world. But unlike traditional computers, networked drones, power grids, and medical devices have chemical and kinetic functions that affect us in direct, material ways. In connecting our insulin pumps, automobiles, and nuclear reactors to the internet, we provide hackers with billions of poorly secured entry points to our off-line lives.
This creates two critical vulnerabilities. First, networked objects can be attacked remotely. With embedded medical devices increasingly brought online, even hearts can be hacked: In 2016, the FDA confirmed that St. Jude Medical’s implantable cardiac devices contained vulnerabilities that hackers could exploit to trick the devices into administering improper pacing or fatal defibrillations. Second, attack tactics against networked objects operate at scale, since a security flaw in one networked object will generally exist in all devices of its make and model. In other words, we shouldn’t just worry about a political figure being assassinated after a successful hack of their pacemaker; rather, we should worry about the mass casualties that would result if all U.S. pacemakers were hacked, all at the same time.
Back in 2012, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta invoked the specter of a “cyber Pearl Harbor.” Organizations should not wait for one before they begin to mount a defense. No country is more networked, and therefore more vulnerable, than the United States; our accelerated transition to a remote-first, automated economy will exacerbate that vulnerability, as the harms of cyber crimes increasingly redound in our off-line lives. Businesses and lawmakers will need to learn to view cyber threats on par with natural disasters, pandemics, or terrorist attacks — and take steps to protect their organizations accordingly.
6. The perceived overreach by finance and tech giants will spur a decentralized technology revolution
Efforts by tech companies to moderate online speech have attracted controversy for over a decade. But in early 2021, two sets of heavy-handed interventions by tech and finance giants sparked a new debate that could transform the modern internet. The first came in the aftermath of riots on Capitol Hill, when a coordinated crackdown by Big Tech on extremist political speech ignited furious allegations from the right of politically biased moderation decisions. Weeks later, a group of retail investors used Reddit forums to coordinate a short squeeze of Melvin Capital, costing the hedge fund giant an estimated $3.75 billion. Robinhood, TD Ameritrade, and other industry giants reacted by preventing retail investors from opening new positions in Reddit-hyped securities, barring them from participating in the ongoing market run-up.
To many, both sagas illustrated that, as a practical matter, a handful of corporate giants at various chokepoints in the internet ecosystem have become the unelected, unaccountable arbiters of what happens online. This realization will unleash a flood of interest and investment in decentralization. Much like bitcoin offered payment solutions free from banks’ control, distributed encrypted networks will emerge as the permissionless, privacy-protective alternative to the centralized internet ecosystem.
The proliferation of permission-free, decentralized systems will have dramatic second-order consequences.
Content moderation will be decentralized first, as incumbents increasingly embrace models that “pass the buck” on moderation decisions to a wider community of users. Banking and finance will follow, with cryptocurrencies and decentralized finance platforms like Uniswap gaining traction with an increasingly mainstream audience. Eventually, network infrastructure will also be decentralized, as more and more individuals and groups seek to limit their vulnerability to censorship or control by tech giants. As hardware solutions for hosting distributed networks become cheaper and more user-friendly, the ownership of a decentralized node will function much like owning a bond: Hosts will front the capital to purchase the node, receiving in exchange a low-volatility, crypto-denominated yield paid out in regular intervals.
The proliferation of permission-free, decentralized systems will have dramatic second-order consequences. They will enable borderless peer-to-peer transactions that need not rely on centralized intermediaries, and will create forums for open, censorship-proof discussion that no corporation or autocrat can control. It will also transform most internet-based business models: Without centralized institutions acting as chokepoints in the system, enforcing intellectual property rights on the internet — and monetizing online content — will become enormously challenging.
7. Wealth and income inequality will continue to spiral, bringing universal basic income into the mainstream
It was clear by the spring of 2020 that Covid-19 would place the heaviest burden on those least equipped to bear its weight. Months later, an even grimmer picture has emerged, in which the economy of the rich appears to have wholly decoupled from the economy of everyone else. The strong are stronger, the big are bigger, and the weak have become weaker, have folded their small businesses, or were bought out. Low interest rates and lavish stimulus spending sent markets soaring over the past year, enriching those who already owned financial assets. Meanwhile, the U.S. lost 40 million jobs in a period of 10 weeks, with nearly 40% of households earning $40,000 or less including at least one member who was laid off or furloughed.
These gaps will continue to widen. More than a quarter of Fortune 500 company CEOs predict their workforce will never return to pre-pandemic levels, and 70% of companies with annual revenues exceeding $500 million expect technological disruption to affect more than a quarter of their workers by 2025. By 2030, Amazon plans to fully automate its warehouse operations. Driverless cars and trucks will erase millions of jobs in transportation, while human armies are gradually replaced with swarms of autonomous drones. As deepfake software improves, it will eventually replace actors and traditional movie production. Meanwhile, the ravages of climate change will exacerbate existing inequalities, as vulnerable individuals and communities are most exposed and most harmed by air pollution, heat waves, failing crops, and rising oceans.
Many of the newly jobless will enter the gig economy, where they will earn less money with little or no benefits. Others will permanently exit the workforce, such that even as headline unemployment rates fall, the ranks of working-age adults reliant on the state will swell. The inequalities this will create could sow new seeds of insurrection; nevertheless, if America’s business and political leaders rise to meet the moment, they could also pave the way for permanent changes to the social contract. Calamities expand the Overton window, making bold progressive policies previously thought to be impossible seem suddenly within reach.
The forced experimentation with direct cash transfers to citizens in response to this pandemic has expanded people’s understanding of what their governments can do to support them. As the economy reels from the pandemic-driven shock and braces for looming technological disruption, universal basic income (UBI) will emerge as a defining policy issue of the coming decade.
How governments should fund these fiscal outlays remains an open question. Scaling up global cooperation on the fair apportionment of taxes levied on multinational corporations would be a good start. Tax increases are also inevitable, though they must not come at the cost of sustained economic growth — however unevenly distributed — if countries are to produce enough taxable income to support the program. Variants on truly “universal” basic income might help lighten the fiscal burden, for example by targeting aid to only the neediest or by using earned income tax credits to incentivize work. The precise contours of these policies may vary from country to country, but mass income support schemes are coming — and UBI by any other name will still smell just as revolutionary.