Although it’s now popular to ask how life will change after the Coronavirus pandemic, truth is we were already on a path towards massive change. Nationalism was already a growing movement, immigration was already a hot button issue, the world was already moving towards a Post-World War Two order, the negative impact of globalization on jobs in developed countries already had leaders promising to bring manufacturing back, while automation promised a jobless era of localization. The pandemic serves as an accelerant in some instances — and an obstacle in others. But let prognosticators be warned; past predictions of life after pandemics have not Gone Well.
However, global thinkers are asked to provide their views in times of crisis, and a perspective on a post-pandemic society is no exception. This recent Article provides a view from twelve different global thinkers, and while relying on the opinions of individuals informs us, history provides a lens that may be very instructive. In The Fourth Turning, the author describes the cycles of history, where each piece of the cycle is approximately 20 years in duration — adding up to a long life of 80 years. The book illuminates the past, explains the present, and reimagines the future. It offers an utterly persuasive prophecy about how the past will predict the future. Considering the headwinds that we face as a society; the book predicted a crisis that reshapes the social order prior to 2030 — much like it has throughout history. So before I summarize the predictions in the article, I want to look back one hundred years to see if there is something to be Learned from History.
One of the worst pandemics in recent memory was the 1918 Spanish Flu — some estimates had 100 million people dying. I had already been thinking about the scary similarities between the 1920s and the start of this new decade — and the Coronavirus just introduced another one. This Slideshow does a great job comparing aspects of the two eras — and much like the 1920s, the current pandemic is but one force that influences the path forward. These multiple forces are like Dots Connecting in a Complex System. Here at a high level are some of the similarities:
The United States was easily the most prosperous country in the world in the 1920s, yet more than two-thirds of families were living on incomes below the generally accepted minimum. After a thirty-year period of decline between 1950 and 1980, inequality has been on the rise. The Gini index or Gini coefficient is a statistical measure of distribution that is used as a gauge of economic inequality. This visual shows the growth of inequality in the U.S.
In the 1920s, two immigration acts were passed to manage immigration inflows — the Emergency Immigration Act of 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924. To underscore just how intense the anti-immigration sentiment of the 1920s was, the Immigration Act of 1924 sailed through the Senate 62–6, enjoying overwhelming bipartisan support. The Immigration Act established national immigration quotas, drastically limiting Asian and European immigrants perceived as radical and un-American: Italians, Poles, and Jews most prominently among them. In the present decade, security and economic concerns have brought anti-immigration sentiment back to the fore.
The Spanish flu, also known as the 1918 flu pandemic, was a deadly influenza pandemic. Lasting from January 1918 to December 1920, it infected 500 million people — about a quarter of the world’s population at the time. The death toll is estimated to have been anywhere from 17 million to 50 million, and possibly as high as 100 million, making it one of the deadliest epidemics in human history. We have had several experiences with pandemics or epidemics since then (AIDS, Swine Flu, SARS, H2N2, Ebola, Zika, etc.). The Corona Virus could be unique in its economic impact — much remains to be seen.
Economic prosperity in the 1920s accelerated societal change through inventions such as the refrigerator, airplane, washing machine, and more. The automobile dramatically altered society, while Henry Ford and his industrialized assembly line changed the face of production forever. The radio allowed people to connect in ways unimaginable just a few years before. Societal change leading to the 2020s resulted from our connectedness and innovation. The ubiquity of connection allows us to remain close to friends and family, while giving us instant access to information, knowledge and the cultures of the world. Innovation has altered society via the Internet, smart phones, and soon, a social revolution on the back of autonomous vehicles. In the 1920s, electricity permeated and transformed people’s lives — much like the Internet did in the current era, and 5G is likely to do in the next.
AGE OF AUTOMATION
While the economy was booming, many individuals were in fear of losing their jobs in the 1920s, as they faced increased mass production and new technologies. As in the 1920s, increased automation poses a threat to work forces, with concern that workers will be replaced by technologies such as Artificial Intelligence. Today, people are faced with the very same fears of human obsolescence in the workplace. This time, in the form of exponential technologies.
In the 1920’s, Americans were tired of being involved in outside affairs especially following the devastation caused by World War One. A desire to focus on “us” put the “roaring” into the 20s. The U.S. had become an economic power, and Republican presidents shifted their attention from foreign entanglements to economic growth. Fast forward a century and the winds of nationalism are blowing again.
In the 1920s, the major scientific debate involved the theory of evolution, today, its climate change. Science played a major role in advancing human development during the second industrial revolution, spanning what some have called a Special Century. Penicillin was a major breakthrough, as mortality rates began their decline. Science is again playing a major role in this current period of great invention. We are once again talking about extending our healthy lives, and on top of eradicating infectious diseases, we are now focused on chronic diseases like cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.
MIND ALTERING SUBSTANCES FOCUS ON SOCIALISM
If the 1920s were defined by alcohol and prohibition, the 2020s are likely be the decade of cannabis and legalization. Instead of prohibition, which lasted from 1920 to 1933, the war on drugs dominated the three decades leading to our current decade. Current experiments with legalized cannabis might make it commonplace globally by the end of the 2020s.
The period between the two world wars was characterized by world-wide tensions, with the rise of mass political movements such as communism, fascism, and national socialism. World events like World War One and the Great Depression provided the breeding ground for new forms of governance, finding a receptive audience among the many struggling to survive. Socialism was feared in capitalist countries in the 1920s, and although the ultimate triumph of capitalism was believed to push socialism out of American discourse, now, it’s the hot new movement. Fearing that capitalism is not working for them, some have sparked renewed interest in socialism, a dynamic similar to the world war era.
A bull market in the 1920s drove values of stocks to increase. On September 1929, stocks were selling for 16 times their earnings, and America’s total wealth more than doubled between 1920 and 1929. The 1920s launched our current consumer society, private and corporate debt was very high, and reckless speculation led to a highly overvalued stock market. A depression hit the agricultural sector during the 1920s as 25% of farms were sold for debt or taxes. Foreclosures increased 500% between 1918 and 1923, foreshadowing the Great Depression later in the decade. We’ve just come down off an unprecedented bull run, and this past week, the words great and depression have come up multiple times.
The 1920s was a decade of liberalized social norms. Many began to hold increasingly liberal views on drug use, sexuality, women and minorities, provoking considerable backlash. The 2020s represents a period of evolving social liberalism, with gay marriage, healthcare reform, advanced environmental awareness, and an increase in women’s roles in business and politics.
I have used this visual to capture the dizzying number of events, inventions, government actions, economic and business activities during the special century referenced above. Pay close attention to the area that leads up to the 1920s and the immediate aftermath.
Now, with that historical perspective, scary similarities, and known post-1920s outcomes, can any of this inform our view of a post-pandemic world? Yes, a global crisis was just introduced into this equation, but as mentioned, we had a lot going on prior to this current pandemic. Does this turn of events act as an accelerant, obstacle, or does it set us on a different course? What do our global thinkers have to say about the post-pandemic world? Remember, the predictions of life after pandemics of the past have been way off — in part because the focus was too narrow. The Article referenced earlier provides the full point of view for each of the prognosticators. Here is a summary:
Stephen M. Walt sees a world less open, prosperous, and free. He sees it reinforcing nationalism and accelerating the shift in power and influence from west to east. He also envisions a retreat from globalization. In this scenario, the pandemic serves as an accelerant to several possible outcomes already in flight. Many of the globalization head winds were already there.
Robin Niblett sees the end of globalization as we know it. He believes it is highly unlikely that the world will return to the idea of mutually beneficial globalization that defined the early 21st century. As a result, he believes the outcome leads to a quick atrophy of the architecture of global economic governance established in the 20th century. Here again, an accelerant to a reshaping of the world order that was already progressing, driven by several forces.
Kishore Mahbubani sees a more china-centric globalization. While Americans have lost faith in Globalization, the Chinese have not. Kishore sees two options for the United States: If its primary goal is to maintain global primacy, it will have to engage with China in a zero-sum geopolitical contest, politically and economically. However, if the goal of the United States is to improve the well-being of the American people — whose social condition has deteriorated — it should cooperate with China. Given this, the pandemic is likely to accelerate a change that had already begun: a move away from American-centric globalization to a more China-centric globalization.
John Ikenberry sees democracies coming out of their shell, with a reinforcement of the movement toward nationalism, great-power rivalry, strategic decoupling, and the like. But he states that just as the post 1920s era introduced a counter-current, one may emerge here as well. In his assessment, he points to the 1930s collapse of the world economy, how connected modern societies were, and how vulnerable they were to what FDR called contagion. I find this piece of the story to be critical: What FDR and other internationalists conjured was a postwar order that would rebuild an open system with new forms of protection and capacities to manage interdependence. The United States couldn’t simply hide within its borders, but to operate in an open postwar order required the building of a global infrastructure of multilateral cooperation. Here in 2020, we can’t hide from the realities of our interconnected world, yet the world was already on the path towards a different version of globalization.
Shannon K. O’Neil sees lower profits, but more stability. As mentioned before, the seeds of change were sown earlier. As Shannon describes, Global supply chains were already coming under fire on two levels: economically (due to rising Chinese labor costs, trade wars, and advances in robotics, automation, and 3D printing) and politically (due to real and perceived job losses, especially in mature economies). On the other side of the pandemic, Shannon sees a trade-off: efficiency for redundancy.
Shivshankar Menon believes that this pandemic can serve a useful purpose. Shivshankar does not yet see the end of an interconnected world, believing the pandemic itself is proof of our interdependence. But he already sees a turning inward, a search for autonomy and control of one’s own fate. He believes we are headed for a poorer, meaner, and smaller world.
Joseph S. Nye, Jr. believes American power will need a new strategy. COVID-19 shows that a national security strategy focused on great-power competition is inadequate. Even if the United States prevails as a great power, it cannot protect its security by acting alone. His sentiment mirrors a broader global governance question related to climate change and the advance of exponential technologies. The current pandemic is yet another example. Joseph provides a summary of the problem by Richard Danzig in 2018: Twenty-first century technologies are global not just in their distribution, but also in their consequences. Pathogens, AI systems, computer viruses, and radiation that others may accidentally release could become as much our problem as theirs.
John Allen says the history of COVID-19 will be written by the victors. He believes that inevitably, those nations that persevere — both by virtue of their unique political and economic systems, as well as from a public health perspective-will claim success over those who experience a different, more devastating outcome. In so doing, he sees the crisis reshuffling the international power structure in ways we can only begin to imagine. The international system will, in turn, come under great pressure, resulting in instability and widespread conflict within and across countries.
Laurie Garrett sees a dramatic new stage in global capitalism. COVID-19 has proven that pathogens can not only infect people but poison the entire just-in-time system. The result could be a dramatic new stage in global capitalism, in which supply chains are brought closer to home and filled with redundancies to protect against future disruption. That may cut into companies’ near-term profits but render the entire system more resilient.
Richard N. Haass sees more failed states. The coronavirus crisis will at least for a few years lead most governments to turn inward, focusing on what takes place within their borders rather than on what happens beyond them. He sees greater moves toward selective self-sufficiency, greater opposition to large-scale immigration; and a reduced willingness or commitment to tackle regional or global problems (including climate change). Many countries will have difficulty recovering, with state weakness and failed states becoming even more prevalent.
Kori Schake believes the United States has failed the leadership test. The United States will no longer be seen as an international leader (it was already happening with the recent turn inward). In his view, the global effects of this pandemic could have been greatly attenuated by having international organizations provide more and earlier information, which would have given governments time to prepare and direct resources to where they’re most needed. I’ve described this lack of Governance Elsewhere in the context of innovation. At the broadest level, the hard work post World War One and Two created a world order, many of those institutions still exist. But without leadership, institutions fail.
Nicholas Burns sees the power of the human spirit in every country. He points to many examples: doctors, nurses, political leaders, and ordinary citizens demonstrating resilience, effectiveness, and leadership. He believes it provides hope that men and women around the world can prevail in response to this extraordinary challenge.
This post took us in two directions: back to an earlier time, and ahead to a post-pandemic society. If viewed in isolation, the current pandemic takes an outsized view in shaping our predictions of a future society. There are simply too many forces at work at the same time — and many were hard at work prior to the current crisis.