Mauro Guillén on how the pandemic is accelerating history

Mauro Guillén on how the pandemic is accelerating history
Image: Courtesy Mauro Guillen
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It took a global pandemic and stay-at-home orders for 1.5 billion people worldwide, but something is finally occurring to us: The future we thought we expected may not be the one we get.

We know that things will change; how they’ll change is a mystery. To envision a future altered by coronavirus, Quartz asked dozens of experts for their best predictions on how the world will be different in five years.

Below is an answer from Mauro Guillén, a professor of management at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. In addition to numerous accolades for his work, the trained sociologist is also the author of 2030: How Today’s Biggest Trends Will Collide and Reshape the Future of Everything, which will be published in August 2020.

All pandemics look the same to the naked eye. And yet, each has left a unique and indelible footprint in history. The Plague of Justinian (541-549) prevented a turn in history from taking place by derailing the Byzantine emperor’s grand plan of reuniting the Eastern half of the ancient Roman Empire with its Western half. By contrast, the Black Death (1347-1351) turned history in a different direction by creating an enormous scarcity of labor that spurred innovation and the kind of high-wage economy needed for the Industrial Revolution to occur 400 years later. And there are pandemics that became forgotten simply because they coincided with other epochal events, such as the 1918-1919 influenza during the final stages of World War I.

Will the novel coronavirus pandemic of 2019 make history take a turn, prevent such a turn, or be quickly obliterated from memory as we move on with our lives? The answer is none of the above. This time around, we are witnessing an acceleration of history, an intensification of preexisting trends. Consider population aging. This pandemic has induced a sudden increase in unemployment, which will remain at high levels for a longer period of time than in previous recessions. Couples tend to postpone having babies when faced with economic uncertainty. In addition, travel restrictions and nationalist responses to the crisis will surely reduce immigration. The result will be an acceleration of population aging, leading to an earlier reckoning with funding shortfalls in social security and other government programs.

Population aging and underfunded retirement schemes will exacerbate another trend: that of people working beyond the usual retirement age. This will be a welcome development for many, especially in a context of rising life expectancy. In addition, the shift towards remote work can potentially help better-educated senior citizens the most, enabling them to perform many jobs from the comfort of their homes or to participate in the so-called gig economy. These new ways of working will benefit senior citizens disproportionately, especially those with a college education.

These demographic shifts will also affect consumption. Smaller birth cohorts mean that senior citizens will account for a larger share of purchasing power in the future. The “gray” segment of the market will become the world’s largest, especially in China, Japan, Europe, and the United States—which happen to be the biggest economies to begin with. In the wake of this pandemic, companies will go out of their way to cater to the needs of seniors, leading to major changes in marketing and advertising.

Consider next gender dynamics. The Black Death of the mid-1300s resulted in a shift from farming to husbandry. Women’s position in the economy improved as fewer men were needed to push heavy ploughs in the fields. Fertility declined as women found new opportunities to work, in a sharp reversal from pre-pandemic times. Fast forward to 2019. Births were already on the decline before the pandemic, and women were about to own more than half of the net worth in the world. In the United States, 40% of married women made more money than their husbands. The economic future was looking very promising for a large proportion of women before the pandemic hit. The intensification of the trends towards lower fertility and remote work will benefit women to a greater extent than men, for three reasons. First, women are overrepresented in government, healthcare, and education jobs, many of which can be performed remotely, especially if they involve office and administration tasks. Second, surveys indicate that, among knowledge workers, women are more enthusiastic about remote work than men, perhaps because of the flexibility it provides. Third, some research indicates that productivity can increase when performing work from the home as opposed to the office thanks to the greater ability of home workers to control their environment, avoid office distractions, and focus. If more women were to work from home relative to men after this pandemic, and their productivity increases, their wages and their likelihood of promotion will also rise.

We tend to believe that pandemics have more of an effect on the economy and society if they make history turn. In fact, pandemics that accelerate pre-existing trends can also have a huge impact. Besides demographics, this pandemic will accelerate technology adoption, especially among senior citizens and smaller organizations. It is precisely because of the interaction between ongoing demographic shifts and technology adoption that the effects of this pandemic will be lasting and profound.

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