A letter from Tom Standage, editor of “The World in 2021”
DO YOU FEEL lucky? The number 21 is connected with luck, risk, taking chances and rolling the dice. It’s the number of spots on a standard die, and the number of shillings in a guinea, the currency of wagers and horse-racing. It’s the minimum age at which you can enter a casino in America, and the name of a family of card games, including blackjack, that are popular with gamblers.
All of which seems strangely appropriate for a year of unusual uncertainty. The great prize on offer is the chance of bringing the coronavirus pandemic under control. But in the meantime risks abound, to health, economic vitality and social stability. As 2021 approaches, here are ten trends to watch in the year ahead.
1 Fights over vaccines. As the first vaccines become available in quantity, the focus will shift from the heroic effort of developing them to the equally daunting task of distributing them. Vaccine diplomacy will accompany fights within and between countries over who should get them and when. A wild card: how many people will refuse a vaccine when offered?
2 A mixed economic recovery. As economies bounce back from the pandemic the recovery will be patchy, as local outbreaks and clampdowns come and go—and governments pivot from keeping companies on life-support to helping workers who have lost their jobs. The gap between strong and weak firms will widen.
3 Patching up the new world disorder. How much will Joe Biden, newly installed in the White House, be able to patch up a crumbling rules-based international order? The Paris climate treaty and the Iran nuclear deal are obvious places to start. But the crumbling predates Donald Trump, and will outlast his presidency.
4 More US-China tensions. Don’t expect Mr Biden to call off the trade war with China. Instead, he will want to mend relationships with allies to wage it more effectively. Many countries from Africa to South-East Asia are doing their best to avoiding picking sides as the tension rises.
5 Companies on the front line. Another front for the US-China conflict is companies, and not just the obvious examples of Huawei and TikTok, as business becomes even more of a geopolitical battlefield. As well as pressure from above, bosses also face pressure from below, as employees and customers demand that they take stands on climate change and social justice, where politicians have done too little.
6 After the tech-celeration. In 2020 the pandemic accelerated the adoption of many technological behaviours, from video-conferencing and online shopping to remote working and distance learning. In 2021 the extent to which these changes will stick, or snap back, will become clearer.
7 A less footloose world. Tourism will shrink and change shape, with more emphasis on domestic travel. Airlines, hotel chains and aircraft manufacturers will struggle, as will universities that rely heavily on foreign students. Cultural exchange will suffer, too.
8 An opportunity on climate change. One silver lining amid the crisis is the chance to take action on climate change, as governments invest in green recovery plans to create jobs and cut emissions. How ambitious will countries’ reduction pledges be at the UN climate conference, delayed from 2020?
9 The year of déjà vu. That is just one example of how the coming year may feel, in many respects, like a second take on 2020, as events including the Olympics, the Dubai Expo and many other political, sporting and commercial gatherings do their best to open a year later than planned. Not all will succeed.
10 A wake-up call for other risks. Academics and analysts, many of whom have warned of the danger of a pandemic for years, will try to exploit a narrow window of opportunity to get policymakers to take other neglected risks, such as antibiotic resistance and nuclear terrorism, more seriously. Wish them luck.
The coming year promises to be particularly unpredictable, given the interactions between the pandemic, an uneven economic recovery and fractious geopolitics. This annual will, we hope, help you improve your odds as you navigate the risks and opportunities ahead.
And it’s not all doom and gloom. Lessons and chances for positive change have emerged from the crisis. So let the dice fly high—and, whatever cards 2021 may end up dealing you, may the odds be ever in your favour.