What Does the Future Hold?

James W. Pennebaker and Ashwini Ashokkumar, The Pandemic Project and the University of Texas at Austin

It’s now the middle of May 2020. Because of the COVID crisis, much of the world has been in full or partial lockdown for two months, the global economy has been battered, and unemployment in the U.S. has reached about 15% — the worst rate since the Great Depression.

Worldwide, people are trying to adapt to the radical changes to their everyday lives. Many are working remotely. Most can’t visit their extended family, their neighbors, their local restaurants, or bars. Instead, they’re spending time on social media, watching movies, playing games, homeschooling their children, and sometimes going a little crazy.

In the middle of this crisis, there’s a clamor of contradictory ideas. Government officials, health experts, businesses, and private citizens disagree about when and how the crisis will end and, once it ends, what lies ahead. Some eagerly anticipate a return to greater freedom and economic recovery. Others report increased levels of fear, anxiety, and anger, worrying that the virus will resurge. Because of the cacophony of voices and ideas about something so unknown, a large segment of society doesn’t know what to believe.

Historians point out that pandemics often create social change, and journalists speculate whether COVID will change policy and social dynamics in the U.S. The whole world is grappling with the same critical questions: What will daily life be like when COVID is gone? Will COVID change how we think and act in the future or will we revert to life as it was before? How much economic destruction and unemployment will lie in its wake?

We are trying to assess people’s opinions about these questions. In a recent survey (Version 3 of the Pandemic Project survey), we asked about 2,500 people how they thought their lives would be after 1-2 years, once the pandemic has ended.

We wanted to know how people thought they would change some of their most fundamental behaviors related to their lifestyle, work, and social life. For each behavior, they specified how much more or less they expected to engage in that behavior, in response to the following prompt:

scale

The results are striking. A large proportion of respondents expected COVID to change their lifestyle and daily behaviors. As you can see in the figure, about 30-50% of the sample expected to change their own activities in meaningful ways once the threat of the corona virus passed.

Figure 1. Percentage of people who will do more of the behavior (in green) and less of the behavior (in orange). Those who will maintain the same level as before COVID are not shown. So, for example, 48.9% of the entire sample checked that they would save money moderately or much more than before COVID whereas only 3.5% claimed they would likely save less money. Statistically, 47.6% responded that they would save money at about the same rate as before COVID. The survey was completed between May 1-14, 2020 (methodological details).

People complain about feeling trapped and lonely in their houses during the lockdown, but, when asked about the future, they remain connected to the security and comfort of their homes. Many appear reluctant to risk visiting crowded places or even straying too far away from their front doors. Fully 36 percent report they will be less likely to venture out to restaurants, bars, and movie theaters in the 1-2 years after COVID. Only about 9 percent expect to go out more than before the outbreak started. About 15% say they will attend religious services at lower rates and roughly 29% say they will travel to distant locations at lower rates than pre-COVID (although 18 percent will travel more).

Beyond their predictions of travel, people’s cautious states of mind are shaping their general approach to the future. They are no longer charmed by the idea of a carefree exotic life. Fewer than 10% claim they will lead more exotic and carefree lives, while almost 29% say they will change their lifestyle to be less wild and more careful.

In the same vein, people want to better prepare for unexpected events and crises in the future. About 49% of the sample plans to save more money. People expect to live healthier, more connected lives, which would presumably provide them a buffer against future threats. About 38% of the sample report they would change their lives in healthy ways. The majority of the sample say they would maintain better work-life balance. Similarly, over 30 percent would actively try to spend more time with family and friends.

The COVID crisis also appears to have affected the ways most people think about technology. Their experiences with Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, and other platforms are undoubtedly causing them to reevaluate the ways they work, learn, and shop. Over 30% of the sample expects to work from home, get educated online, and use delivery services more than pre-COVID. In open-ended survey responses, some report the advantages of technological advances: they save time by avoiding commuting and are more productive in their jobs.

Possible economic implications. Assuming people have some insight into their future behaviors, the surveys portend significant changes in U.S. spending patterns. If these findings hold true, there could be profound changes in our culture:

  • Living more cautious lives. Since the last big recession in 2008, the U.S. and much of the world economy has been growing at an impressive rate. During these years, interest rates have been extremely low, which has discouraged people from saving their money. But the pandemic has shaken the people in our surveys to an alarming degree. The enormous loss of jobs, drops in the stock markets, and the long term uncertainty about the world economy are adding to feelings of insecurity. If past depressions and recessions are any guide, we can expect people to save what money they can and turn more to family and close friends for comfort and support. After being buffeted by unpredictable events, our respondents are telling us that they want to live safer and more predictable lives closer to home, with family and friends nearby and more money in the bank.
  • Shifting the nature of work. The transformative power of online communication platforms will likely have a lasting impact. Based on the numbers, many jobs can actually be done more efficiently by people at home. Occasional office meetings will be needed but does a company really need to have an entire building that remains empty 80 percent of working hours? What are the implications of cutting 1-2 hours of each person’s daily commute?

Along similar lines, one could argue that business travel may not be needed in the ways of the past. Recently, the organizers of a small conference that our group of researchers was planning to attend canceled because of the pandemic. Instead, the conference was conducted virtually. The 2-day meeting was reduced to one day and was a success. The sponsoring agency saved money and all the participants avoided a day of travel each way. (We didn’t, however, get the opportunity of enjoying green chile enchiladas in Santa Fe).

  • Rethinking online education. Online classes have gotten a bum rap by teachers and students over the last few years. Many university faculty and students have long been suspicious and even contemptuous of online courses. After two full months of classes delivered digitally, some are developing more favorable views of the online approach while others remain wary. One one hand, online education can be simultaneously provided to a large number of students, and when done well, it has the potential to be more effective than traditional teaching. At the same time, online education is less accessible to low-income groups, possibly worsening socioeconomic inequalities. For education to realistically go digital in the long term, the gaps in internet access would need to be filled.

We are all quite good at predicting the future; all we lack is accuracy. Right now, many of us are looking out our windows and imagining a different life compared to our current circumstances. The problem is that we don’t know what our circumstances will be in a year from now.

Perhaps what is most surprising is that, at most any other time, if you asked people what they might do if they won a million dollars, got a big promotion, or were told by their boss to take the year off with full pay, we suspect that a large number of people would likely endorse having a more exotic and carefree life. It’s hard to imagine that a very large number would say they would expect to embark on a less exotic life.

But this is not any other time. It’s the middle of May 2020. Hopefully, in a year from now, the world will be more predictable and understandable and we will be able to better understand how we will live in the future.

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