What Will Our Post-Pandemic Future Look Like?

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Mother and child waiting together for the school bus, holding a face mask and a backpack. (Getty Images)
Mother and child waiting together for the school bus, holding a face mask and a backpack. (Getty Images)

January tends to be a time of looking into the future and imagining what we want our lives to be.

But so much as changed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic — how we work, how children learn, the way we shop and how we interact with each other.

Jeffrey Cole, director of The Center for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, has made some predictions for how life will change in the post-pandemic world.

Work From Home Remains

According to a study by USC Center for the Digital Future, 30% of Americans say that even if they could go back to work safely, they don't want to. Some tech companies have already said they're going to allow their employees to work from home after the pandemic.

More broadly, Cole says he believes more people will be able to work from home once the pandemic is over. His study found 90% of Americans want some sort of change from how offices functioned pre-coronavirus pandemic — whether that’s the option to remain fully remote or the opportunity to go into the office only two or three days a week.

The study found almost three-quarters of American workers can do at least a little bit of their job online, while 26% can’t do any work online. For people without a college degree, the number of those who can’t do any work online increases to 51%, likely due to cultural and economic bias, he says.

Before the pandemic, suspicion of three-day weekends or slacking off caused some supervisors to resist letting employees work from home. But Cole says now, companies — many of which used to be skeptical of remote work — will oblige to new work-from-home demands. He says many companies found remote work actually didn’t hurt day-to-day operations.

Restructuring — both the physical office space and corporate culture — is almost inevitable, he says. Big corporate office spaces will likely shrink, he says, which in turn will “have profound consequences for commercial real estate.” Most work spaces will be scaled back by 50%, he predicts.

In-Person Education Will Make Full Recovery

USC Center for the Digital Future’s study found 43% of college students say they enjoy online learning better than in-person learning. The caveat? They want to see tuition reduced.

“Who wants to spend $60,000 a year going to school in your parents' basement for a system that's not as good?” Cole says.

But many schools have pushed against reducing tuition for several reasons, one being they wouldn't be able to afford need-based scholarships.

Smaller colleges are going to disappear because of financial despair, he says. Maintenance costs at the physical university or college don’t go away because students aren’t on campus, he says.

While the pandemic has put an insurmountable strain on educators and students alike, K-12 and college students “will be in front of teachers as quickly as possible,” Cole says.

Total online learning is “not a permanent change,” he predicts. He believes pupils will be back in classrooms as soon as possible, potentially even before students are vaccinated if proper funding and conditions are implemented.

“This has been a horrible year for students,” he says, “and we think they'll be back as soon as it's safe, if not even a little earlier.”

Online Shopping Boom Is ‘Just Getting Started’

Online shopping — especially Amazon — has been a “life saver” for many people quarantined inside, Cole says.

His study found 7% of Americans had never made an online purchase before the pandemic. But four weeks into the COVID-19 crisis, 32% of those non-online shoppers had made their first digital purchase.

Necessity pushed those folks to adopt online shopping into their routines, he says.

E-commerce goliath Amazon, a trillion-dollar company, grew by 40% in the first six months of the pandemic, he says.

“They're just getting started,” he says. “I know that sounds like an exaggeration, but Amazon commerce is only in about 12 countries. Beyond commerce, they've moved into entertainment, and now they're moving into medical and pharmacy and banking.”

Apple and Alphabet, the parent company of Google, also experienced extensive growth this year, with both company’s stock expanding. Cole says the runway for these tech companies is “enormous. The numbers boggle the mind.”

They could advance their reach with cashless apps and entertainment streaming services, he says.

The future of these tech companies could depend on government regulations, some of which are already on the horizon.

The first type of regulation tech companies could face has to do with invading privacy and policing systems, something Cole says Facebook would be at the forefront of. The second type of regulation would address the gigantic size of companies such as Amazon and Alphabet, he says.

“The anti-competitive practices, the inability of others to gain a foothold — we're going to see some real antitrust action,” he predicts. “We're going to see regulation based on behavior, mainly Facebook and a little bit of Twitter, and then regulation proposed based on size.”

Cassady Rosenblum produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku Ray. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on January 4, 2021.


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