The change accelerator: where is Covid-19 taking us?

The pandemic of 2020 is the biggest disruptor of the 21st century so far. But far from overturning everything we knew, Covid-19 is taking existing trends and accelerating them: it has sped up the rise of new technologies, social movements and ways of working, as well as the decline of already-struggling sectors and businesses. Where, in the end, does that increased momentum take us?

Normality bites

In June, global mobility data compiled by Apple and Google indicated that people were starting to return to places of work, retail and recreation – albeit at an uneven pace, as lockdown measures were eased (1).

But that apparent rebound obscures potential long-term impact. We may have seen bullish figures for customer spending in Germany (2) and the US in May (3), but the crisis will leave economic scars. Even with gains in June, the US unemployment rate hovers around 11% (4); in Europe, employment subsidy schemes have minimised unemployment, but job losses are expected once the furlough support ends (5). Few sectors are going to be immune.

“The financial crisis of 2008 mainly hit the manufacturing sector, but there is now a high risk across sectors,” says Carsten Brzeski, Chief Economist, Eurozone and Global Head of Macro for ING Research. “At least some of these people will not be returning to full-time employment once the rebound has really taken place.” 

This is one area in which Covid-19 is likely to act as an accelerator of structural changes that had already surfaced before the pandemic. “We were already downsizing in manufacturing and transitioning towards a service industry,” says Brzeski. “Which will now be accelerated by Covid-19.”

Look after the left-behinds (or pay the price)

Futurist and trendwatcher Adjiedj Bakas warns against leaving behind those who lose out in these structural changes in the economy. Economic inequality has polarised workers across the globe. The Occupy movement and anti-austerity protests in Greece in 2011, and more recently the protests by gilet jaunes in France – alongside the general trend towards greater social justice – show that the public’s patience with profit over people is wearing thin. And their voices are louder: thanks to technology, they can transmit and amplify their discontent like never before. 

“You have to take notice of the losers of the future, because they’re not going to sit in a corner and cry silently,” warns Bakas. “They're going to rise everywhere in the world – especially the generation born after 1995. That’s generation Z, so I call that the Z-bellion.”

It’s not all bad

A self-proclaimed optimist, Bakas predicts positive change as a result of the pandemic: the digital transformation will accelerate, and 5G and 6G will enable people to work remotely all over the world. Better technology and new ways of working will open up opportunities for new business models, products and services. 

Advances in digitalisation and automation technology were already incentivising businesses to move manufacturing capabilities closer to home. But when first trade tensions between the US and China, then Covid-19, showed us the fragility of global supply chains, reshoring was quickly mooted as the answer.

Bakas expects to see factories reshored, and for more regional manufacturing to slow down global trade – something he first observed in 2015 and coined ‘slowbalisation’ (6). “Many factories will come home, supported by robotics and 3D printing,” he says. “Now, we need to have supply chains that are fit for living from one lockdown to another.”

But Brzeski does not expect “a fully de-globalised world.” He agrees that global supply chains have already felt pressure from Brexit, the rising tensions between China and the US, and now Covid-19, “But this is not a game changer,” he says. “It’s just too expensive to change global supply chains.” 

Green gains

As they try to re-establish their profitability, businesses and governments will also find themselves tested on supply-chain governance, employee trust and their social justice and climate commitments by an increasingly opinionated public and rising reporting requirements. These trends are now coming to a head as a result of Covid-19, and especially society’s environmental footprint has come into sharp focus.

Brzeski believes governments will use the post-pandemic moment to incentivise climate-conscious investments and accelerate the energy transition. “Very often, fiscal stimulus is now used to actually steer structural change,” he says. “With the EU’s Green Deal, for example, sustainability issues are coming back extremely fast.”

So in environmental terms, as in social and workplace terms, Covid-19 is less game-changer, more accelerator. The direction of travel has not changed – we’re just travelling a lot faster. 

“Investors should grasp opportunities and use change,” says Bakas. “A kite rises highest when it flies against the wind.

Shaping your mindset in a post-covid-19 world

On July 1st ING organized a webinar in which we, together with inspirational speakers, delved into opportunities and challenges brought by Covid-19. Amongst these speakers are Carsten Brzeski and Adjiedj Bakas. This is a summary of that webinar.

Enjoyed this article? Also explore our other post-Covid-19 reflections and useful insights for your business.

 

Read more on potential implications of Covid-19 for your business and how to deal with that:

  • July Economic Update: From yesterday to tomorrow
    The reopenings have led to a sharp rebound in activity, but new localised Covid-19 outbreaks have cast a renewed cloud over the global economic outlook for the second half of the year. Discover the latest views and ideas from ING's economists and strategists in our July update.
  • Corona crisis – trends that could impact your business
    We’re a few months into the corona pandemic and global trends are emerging across all sectors that could have a marked and lasting impact on your business. What are they? And how can you best respond?

 

Sources:

  1. https://externalcontent.blob.core.windows.net/pdfs/mobility-report-20200611-637274820358512496.pdf
  2. https://www.ft.com/content/fef46bd5-126c-4b8c-a59d-963e5d485e2e
  3. https://www.ft.com/content/83a1721c-a08d-45e8-95f3-6cb97baa8911
  4. https://www.ft.com/content/53af7715-25c3-4405-96e4-f14b13c65d73
  5. https://www.ft.com/content/0f01a9ed-5b15-4e2d-921c-6eed7a80d0bd
  6. https://www.economist.com/leaders/2019/01/24/the-steam-has-gone-out-of-globalisation?