Changed forever: San Francisco futurist shares predictions on life after COVID-19

ByAlix Martichoux and Brandon Behle KGO logo
Monday, March 15, 2021
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SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- On the year one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic, ABC7 News isn't just looking back -- we're looking forward.

The coronavirus pandemic isn't yet over, but it's clear that some of its effects may be with us forever. We asked Marina Gorbis, executive director of Institute for the Future, how COVID-19 might impact our world over the next five years (and beyond). See her answers broken down by category below.


Back to work? Not necessarily

No big surprise here: The pandemic forced many companies to modernize quickly and allow employees to work from home. And if it ain't broke, don't fix it -- right?

"I think some people are realizing that we don't need to be in the office all the time," says Gorbis. She predicts more workers shifting to a hybrid model, sometimes working remotely and sometimes reporting into an office.

"I do think that in many ways the pandemic showed us the importance of being together and a lot of people are really anxious to be together because we're social beings."

Don't stress about the 1%

"I think in general this pandemic has been an accelerant and a polarizer," says Gorbis. She points out that people in the top 5%-10%, those who were able to keep their jobs, have actually seen increased savings over the past year. The bottom quarter, on the other hand, has seen mounting debt and job insecurity.

"There's a percent of the workforce that hasn't been affected at all. In fact they've done really well and they have increased their savings. So we don't need to worry about that. It's the rest of the working population that we have to worry about."

Small businesses still struggle

Gorbis believes one of the biggest economic hurdles in years to come will be for small businesses.

"It's really difficult to go back to normal once you didn't have business for a long time," she says. Without increased support, we see even more small businesses close even after the pandemic is over.


Distance learning -- but for real this time

There's a difference between online learning that's designed to be online and scrambling to make something work on the fly, Gorbis points out. She believes we'll see more online learning tools used to teach kids even as they return to the classroom.

"I think we're going to see a lot more hybrid learning environments and hopefully better ones that actually provide education and not just deliver content."

Universities see the effects

Whether the pandemic has been a boon or a burden depends on the type of college or university.

"What we're seeing is that applications to top colleges have gone up because people feel like this is a time they can get in," Gorbis says. "On the other side, applications have dropped to community colleges and state colleges and they are really suffering financially."

"I wouldn't be surprised if for some colleges and universities, we see closures and we see debt," she adds.

Elite universities with large endowments, on the other hand, have more of a financial safety net.

Changing Workplace

Overworked and underpaid

"Most people are no longer working 9 to 5 jobs," says Gorbis. "Most people are patching together pieces of work and tasks to make a living. So maybe you're working 20 or 23 hours at an actual job, and then you're driving Uber at night, or maybe you're doing TaskRabbit or some other things.

"But people are working a lot. Hardly anyone is working 40 hours a week, particularly on the lower-income scale."

Flexibility is often praised as an asset of the gig economy, but for many workers, it's translating into serious economic uncertainty.

"Imagine working in an environment where you don't know your salary or your wages. Every day, every minute, what you make can change based on algorithm or demand."

These issues existed before the pandemic, Gorbis admits, but the crisis has only exacerbated the inequities.

"If we continue on the path that we've been on before, we're going to see more contingent, more insecure, more fragmented work, lower pay -- which is not a desirable condition," she says. "I don't know at what point it just breaks down, at what point people can't make a living, can't survive. We're pretty close to that."

Public policy that gives workers a broader social safety net that isn't dependent on their employer can mitigate some of these negative effects of a changing economy.

"The normal wasn't good. The challenge is that we don't go back to normal."


Telehealth is here to stay

Telehealth or telemedicine has been touted for decades as a way to get health care to remote and underserved communities. Now, it's the new normal.

"I don't think we're going to go back to necessarily doing all the visits in person. I think the notion of telehealth is really going to be increasingly taken up," says Gorbis. "There are new technologies coming up that will make that easier. I think that will become an option for a lot more people and I think that's a really great thing."

Uncertain future for long-haulers

Dealing with a novel virus, we're still learning a lot about how COVID-19 affects people in the long-term.

"We don't fully understand how this is going to impact them coming out, how long this is going to last and what this all means," Gorbis says.

Not to mention, the trauma of the past year could take a mental toll on frontline workers, survivors, children and anyone who has lived through it.

Health care heroes

Applications to medical schools have gone up over the past year, says Gorbis, as doctors and nurses have been held up as essential heroes in the COVID-19 fight.

"We need more health care professionals so I think that's a really positive trend," she says.

Race and Social Justice

"You look at any domain of our lives, whether it's health, or wealth or education... there are huge inequalities related to race in all of those areas of our lives," says Gorbis. "We haven't paid enough attention to that, but it's impossible not to pay attention to that now."

The past year has brought issues of systemic racism and inequalities into the collective consciousness. COVID-19 has only amplified inequities that existed beforehand.

Experiencing a pandemic together has also made some people more community-minded.

"You're only as healthy as the homeless person down the street from you. So you can't isolate yourself and say, 'Oh, I'm just going to be in great shape while all these other people are suffering,'" says Gorbis. "Improving health outcomes in your community improves everybody."

The same lens needs to be applied to other areas of life, she adds. "Improving conditions for those who have been marginalized, improving their economic wellbeing actually benefits everybody."


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