We’ve been at this alternative futures game for some time now. In some respects, that can be a bad thing; fresh eyes and imagination and avoidance of mental ruts are absolutely necessary in this line of work. Some of the future horizons we set about planning for are now long in the past. And that means that some of us are now anticipating future horizons that we may not be around for.
It occurred to some of us, as we were in the process of developing scenarios about the consequences of the Coronavirus pandemic, that perhaps we might benefit from the insights of people who definitely WILL be around to see the farther reaches of the future. So we consulted with some of them. The results were interesting.
Overall, their concerns, compared with ours, were more concrete and “real-world” in some ways. While the first things that occurred to us, after a quarter century or more of scenario-izing, had to do with higher-level societal issues (e.g., GDP growth, the state of politics, the role of the US in the world), they spoke of more immediate matters: Where will people live? Will jobs exist for them? How will they get food? Will more children be born? How and where will children (and adults looking to develop skills) be educated?
What follows are some of their thoughts.
* * *
There was a good deal of thought about the cyber realm that we all, for better or worse, now inhabit far more completely than before. Privacy in particular was a major issue for them.
Video platforms will get more refined…and more social. TikTok will become even bigger.
Privacy laws which most recently have leaned towards an individual’s right to privacy (the EU went so far as to claim that an individual’s online presence had the ‘right to be forgotten’), may now lean to the government’s ‘right to control data’ as it relates to national security interests, which healthcare may increasingly play an outsized role in.
Technological innovation spawns both advances in medicine, but also new means by which to exploit information, bringing a new class of threats (e.g. cyber-capabilities of enemies).
The effects of the crisis on the economy and employment, they thought, would be long-lasting and profound. With new remote options available, the quality of work life may improve for the fortunate ones, but at the same time whole sectors of the economy will shed jobs.
Most young people have student debt they will not be able to pay off. Currently there is a suspension of all federal student loan debt payments…but at some point the Republicans will insist on payments being made. When that happens there will be a massive wave of student debt default…a larger debt default than the mortgage crisis of 2008.
Will large employers start to automate jobs out of existence sooner than expected? How will that affect the unemployment rate a couple of years out?
A lot of people won’t want to go back to a traditional office setting in the same way as before. Many people will expect more flexibility, more efficiency, less travel, and fewer in-person meetings.
Many companies will realize through the quarantines that they can effectively operate with more of their employees working remotely, resulting in a lot of excess and unused commercial real estate and a lot of jobs being eliminated in the permanent switch to digital work.
There will be a permanent contraction in retail as well, eliminating a lot of jobs. Overall there will be an increasing surplus population of workers, many of them young people and minorities and women, who will be thrust into a state of precariousness we haven’t seen since the great depression.
People’s choice of where to live could also be affected. Big cities may lose their appeal, at least for a while.
It’s possible that as companies learn to function remotely, and if people maintain a fear of densely populated areas, people may move away from cities. For a period of time, people may spend less and be more risk-averse in fear of future uncertainty.
Whether or not people start gravitating toward the outer boroughs [of NYC] will depend on whether the virus comes back in a second or even third wave. SARS didn’t have too much of an impact on our desire to live in densely populated metros. COVID definitely feels more dangerous.
The difficulty of how to return to “normal life” when there is as yet no known vaccine or effective treatment was a worry.
I often think of the effects/costs of continuing to extend the stay at home orders vs. the effects/costs of reopening too soon and experiencing an uptick in the numbers. Also, the effect of going back for a period of time and (whether it be a week or months) and then experiencing a second wave. The timing, acceptance and effectiveness of widespread testing or a vaccine will have a great impact, as many will not feel safe until then.
I wonder about reactions to the balance of individual liberties against health concerns as we are slowly phased back into ‘normal life.’ As stay at home orders are relaxed, certain restrictions will continue and new requirements may evolve.
Climate change was seen not as a long-term worry, but instead as something that is already affecting their lives, and possibly not unrelated to the current crisis:
With a warming planet, diseases may mutate more quickly and more often, leading to this just being the first of an unknown number of global pandemics.
With most of the government focused on the economic and health fallout, will climate change rage even more out of control?
Further difficulties in international relations were foreseen, with China and US competition a major focus of concern.
[There is a lot of uncertainty] about long-term collaboration among nations. How will the world work together to keep people safe and healthy?
“Wuhaniphobia,” fear or distrust of all things Chinese, could cause an increase in protectionist tendencies, favoring of tariffs, anti-globalization, weakening of NATO and EU.
China [could be] a new world leader; [we need to think about] how that will affect the US if the global rules of trade are dictated in China.
‘Showmanship’ rather than ‘statesmanship’ may warp strategic responses of government.
More generally, there were fears that the pandemic could worsen domestic US political divisions and feed radicalization – from both extremes.
The worst situation for the collective good of the country would be a federal government failure to restart the economy and end the pandemic. It provides so much ammo to the ‘I told you so’ factions, and the splintering continues.
There could be increasing potential for populism/nationalism and even a rise in far right (and far left) activities after being emboldened by ‘nothing left to lose’ and ‘us vs. them’ information campaign which are stoked by financial and security fears.
I believe ultimately that the coronavirus will create structural shocks in our economy and social life that our political institutions will not be able to alleviate, which will continue to radicalize young people.
Historically, these would be the conditions for growing support for socialism and growing support for fascism, and I think we are seeing the early stages of that.
If it turns out that there is a significant difference in cases and deaths from the disease between rich and poor communities or white and minority communities, or both, will there be renewed anger at the 1%?
There was some discussion of the possibility of a relatively optimistic outcome.
An unexpected return to normalcy [could occur,] as negative COVID-19 data is downplayed successfully, and positive events such as a vaccine are developed sooner than expected.
Then again, there was the possibility of a much worse outcome even than is being considered right now, especially if there is a second wave of infections:
A second wave of the virus could cause it to be ‘one step forward, two steps back.’
Double backlash – the economic toll, combined with the loss of life, both work to counteract desired end-states.
A competing event (war, famine, or some other catastrophic event) could hit while the current crisis is still ongoing.
Life expectancy will drop, people will become more closed off, travel less, be distrustful of outsiders, but will rely more on local networks of family and community, which will become more robust as a result, a sort of digital peasantry.
* * *
We will be digesting these opinions as we move forward with our Coronavirus scenario efforts. Watch this space for more details.