From home offices to space exploration, some 2020 trends were positive
Why We Wrote This
Out with the bad. In with the new. That’s the way many people felt as 2020 ended. Yet our senior economics writer notes some positive trends we might actually want to carry forward.
Ben Garver/The Berkshire Eagle/AP
The corn maze at Taft Farms in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, celebrates 2020, the year of the rat, Sept. 24, 2020. The maze got less use in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Yet if people were involuntarily more reclusive, the year may have permanently expanded a work-from-home trend that is seen by many workers as positive.
January 4, 2021
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2020 is going down as one of the most despised years of the century. But while ringing in 2021, it’s worth noting some positive trends that took root or expanded over the past 12 months. For starters, SpaceX became the first private company to launch humans into orbit, part of a rising commercial and international diversity in the field of space exploration.
Diversity also stood out as a trend on Earth. Kamala Harris, who is both the first woman and the first Black and South Asian person elected as vice president of the United States, is one of many women and people of color who recorded historic firsts in governments around the world. A parallel trend is protests against institutional racism in the U.S. and beyond – and a rise in at least symbolic efforts to counter it.
The pandemic accelerated the work-at-home movement, which may persist in ways that are generally welcomed by workers. A related benefit may be less road traffic, reducing greenhouse gas emissions alongside larger trends like the falling cost of solar power.
And several governments passed stimulus programs before the pandemic hurt the economy, a kind of preemptive strike against recessions that is growing in favor, says Harvard economist Jason Furman.
It’s no secret that many people worldwide had a strong feeling of “good riddance” when leaving 2020 behind.
The twin forces of an accelerating pandemic and a decelerating economy predominated in a year that also had plenty of troubles on other fronts, from wildfires to attacks in a number of nations on principles of democracy or human rights.
Yet, as a new year opens, it’s useful to note that some positive trends also took root or expanded in 2020, and if they continue, they may well brighten the future in far-reaching ways. Here are eight of them:
Space as a business. With all the focus on the pandemic and its fallout, it was easy to forget that 2020 marked the return of America launching people into space. How it launched them is even more historic. Ever since the end of the space shuttle, the U.S. had been relying on the Russian government to ferry its astronauts to and from the International Space Station. But in May, astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley lifted off from American soil in a spacecraft made not by NASA but by SpaceX – the first time a private spacecraft had carried humans into orbit.
“It’s definitely a year of significant change,” says Jonathan McDowell, astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. SpaceX isn’t the only private-sector player, and low-Earth orbit “is not the frontier anymore.”
Is this America? A breach in peaceful transition of power.
Satellite statistics tell the story: Some 1,200 were launched into orbit this past year, he says, more than double the previous record. Much, but not all of that, is due to Starlink, SpaceX’s program to put thousands of satellites into orbit to create near global access to the internet. Experts compare this growing commercialization to the mid-19th century private railroads that tamed the American West.
Other nations have also been busy, reflecting the growing internationalization of space. In December alone, Japan’s Hayabusa2 brought home asteroid samples, India launched a communications satellite, and China’s Chang’e 5 orbiter returned to Earth with the first moon rock samples in 44 years.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft is seen in this false color infrared exposure as it is launched on May 30, 2020, at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2 mission carried astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley to the International Space Station.
The work-from-home movement. This trend was well underway before the pandemic, but lockdowns in the United States and in other countries forced many firms to allow their employees to work from home. Suddenly, the morning commute was replaced with daily Zoom meetings, conventions and conferences went digital, and travel became so rare for a time that Earth became quiet and scientists could hear natural seismic activity for the first time. And urban birds changed the way they sang.
If the pandemic eases this year and office towers do open up again, many experts believe workers will spend more days working from home than before the pandemic. “Our best estimate is that we will see 25-30% of the workforce working at home on a multiple-days-a-week basis by the end of 2021,” forecasts Global Workplace Analytics. Having learned to manage remotely, companies will encourage it, because it can save an average $11,000 per year for every employee who works at home half of the time, the research and consulting firm estimates.
And for workers? While working from home can have challenges, an October Pew Research Center poll found that in the U.S., nearly 9 in 10 jobholders who can work at home would like to do so more than “rarely” or “never” when the pandemic is over. This trend, coupled with the rise of online shopping, could also reduce traffic congestion.
Decarbonizing the economy. The lockdowns and the work-from-home trend also reduced fossil fuel emissions, and has meant that the world used an estimated 5% less energy in 2020 than in 2019, points out Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency. That won’t avert climate change by itself. For example, the plunge in traffic worldwide last spring led to only a 17% decline in global daily emissions, a clear signal of how human activity of almost any kind creates emissions, even if it’s just staying at home browsing the internet.
But Mr. Birol is optimistic in part because political pressure to address warming is growing. Several European Union nations and the United Kingdom, for example, have included emissions-cutting projects in their stimulus and economic recovery programs.
And other nations, including the U.S., will join in, because green energy, particularly solar, is becoming cheaper than fossil fuels, he adds. “Solar is the new king of the global electrical markets,” he says. In 2020, for the first time, it accounted for half of all the new electrical capacity that was built in the year. In the next decade, renewable energy will account for more than 90% of the world’s new electrical capacity, he adds. “I believe the energy world is changing in 2021.”
Diversity. The United States elected its first female (as well as Black and South Asian) vice president, Democrat Kamala Harris, and at least 141 women to Congress, a record, mostly achieved because of unprecedented gains in the number of female Republican lawmakers, from 22 to at least 36. U.S. President-elect Joe Biden appointed Rep. Deb Haaland to lead the Interior Department, America’s first Native American to serve as a Cabinet secretary. Greece elected its first female president. New Zealand’s prime minister appointed that nation’s first Indigenous woman foreign minister. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo happily paid a €90,000 ($110,000) fine for having appointed too many women to management positions in city hall, breaking a French gender equity law.
Confronting racism. The killing of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of police set off a wave of protests as far away as Britain, Switzerland, and Brazil. In the United States, his death sparked a national conversation about institutional racism, which prompted governments and companies to take a number of symbolic steps: from removing statues of Confederate generals to retiring food brands and names of sports teams linked to racial stereotypes. Whether the stirring will lead to wider substantive change remains an open question.
Artificial intelligence. Researchers used artificial intelligence techniques to speed up the battle against the coronavirus. Within three months of the identification of COVID-19, humans were testing vaccines – an unprecedented speed for vaccine development. In an even bigger potential development, DeepMind, the Google company whose AI program taught itself to beat chess grandmasters within hours, is now reliably predicting how amino-acid sequences of proteins will fold themselves, a huge leap for biology and biomedical research.
Middle East accords. The Trump administration brokered historic agreements in 2020 that led the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco to establish diplomatic ties with Israel in return for a pledge not to annex more of the West Bank, at least for now. The treaties underscore the increasing ties between Israel and conservative Arab states that oppose the rise of Iran. But these agreements came at a diplomatic price to the U.S., and have yet to lend momentum for new negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
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Anti-recession policy. Typically, governments pass stimulus programs after an economic plunge. But because the pandemic-related lockdowns were self-induced and predictable, several nations passed stimulus programs that amounted to a preemptive strike against recession. In the U.S., lawmakers passed the roughly $2 trillion CARES Act in March just as the pandemic was getting started, and it helped make the recession much less severe than many economists predicted. Will the 2020 experience cause governments to make preemptive moves when the next recession looms?
“Most recessions are harder to predict than this one because we don’t normally shut down much of the economy at once,” writes Harvard economist Jason Furman in an email. “But in principle, economic support for active, discretionary fiscal policy is growing.” The traditional white knights in downturns – central banks – have limited firepower when interest rates are so low. But low interest rates also make it cheaper for governments to act instead, he adds.