Crystal Ball 2021: Predictions for the economy, politics, technology, and more
If you thought 2020 was an unpredictable year, you probably weren’t paying attention. For over a decade, epidemiologists have sounded the warning that a once-in-a-hundred-years pandemic could ravage the planet, and that even the most advanced nations were ill-prepared for the fallout.
In 2021, we will face challenges both familiar and unforeseen—but we will also see shoots of rejuvenation as the world thaws from lockdown. Here are Fortune’s predictions of how the next year will play out.
Markets: Wall Street and reality remain out of whack
Corporate America will thrive in 2021, but good fortune will not be evenly distributed.
Corporate taxes stay low
After November’s elections, many stock market prognosticators gleefully greeted the promise of a divided U.S. Congress. That’s because the markets tend to perform better when Capitol Hill is gridlocked, as that rules out disruptive policies that threaten to upend business as usual. In 2021, a likely GOP-controlled Senate, or even a fifty-fifty split, puts the kibosh on any Biden administration plans to reverse the Trump tax cuts; that should bode well for corporate profits, which are also primed for a major rebound when the pandemic wanes.
Cruises run aground
Several small cruise operators have gone under since the pandemic essentially shut down the industry in March (and turned some 3,500-person vacations into headline-grabbing superspreader events). The world’s largest cruise conglomerates—Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian—have remained afloat by selling ships for scrap and taking on new debt. They say they have enough liquidity to survive several more months of near-total shutdowns. But they’re also burning almost a collective $1 billion every month just to stay afloat—and are expecting to see costs increase once they can get their ships back to sailing around the world again.
2 million women lost to the U.S. labor force
Between the job losses that have disproportionately affected Black and Latina women and the childcare burdens that have fallen much more heavily on mothers than on fathers, almost 2.2 million women stopped working or looking for work between February and October, according to the National Women’s Law Center. It will take years for these women to fully return to the workforce, and even then they will experience suppressed wages and lost opportunities.
Colleges under threat
Life on campus will look more normal again next fall—sports! dorms! students!—but colleges will be far from free of their financial woes. Up against declining enrollment (and a steep drop in international students), state budget shortfalls, and an economic crisis, small private colleges and second-tier state schools will struggle to survive. (And a good number won’t.) Don’t expect institutions to save themselves by slashing tuition; they’ll try to stay competitive with generous financial aid, but, as always, the average college sticker price will rise.
Politics: Washington, same but different
Some new faces will emerge in 2021, but don’t expect the status quo to be rocked on Capitol Hill.
Nancy’s farewell tour
At 80, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has led her party through the hallowed halls of the Capitol Building for nearly two decades. Now she’ll stand at the helm of the Democratic ship for one final voyage across the stormy seas of the Beltway before handing over the rudder. Pelosi has been notoriously tight-lipped about whom she would like her successor to be. Out of the names floated, like Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), Cheri Bustos (Ill.), and Tim Ryan (Ohio), we predict it will be California Rep. Linda Sánchez—just elected to her 10th term—who takes the gavel.
The Reaper cometh
Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell delights in his nickname, the Grim Reaper, a title he procured from his steady and skillful slaughter of any Democratic bill that crosses his desk. And sure, past performance doesn’t indicate future results, but it seems unlikely that McConnell’s heart will swell three sizes under a Joe Biden presidency. A number of Democrats are hopeful that Biden’s long history in the Senate will give him some sort of in with the notoriously steel-faced McConnell, but we don’t predict any “Kumbaya” moments uniting Mitch’s Republicans with the left.
A new leader for the left
Like Speaker Pelosi, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders will ease into the octogenarian lifestyle, and progressive Democrats will soon realize that their torchbearer is likely closer to retirement than another presidential run. A leadership vacuum will become a real risk, and there are no obvious candidates with the seniority and stature of Sanders.
There are a number of young progressives working in politics at the state level (N.Y. State Sen. Julia Salazar, we’re looking at you) that Sanders could back for federal runs in 2022.
Sure, the President is having trouble letting go of the Oval Office, but wait until he sees the TV set re-creation. If there’s one thing Donald Trump is good at, it’s entertainment. His rallies captivated a nation, and before that his reality TV show was a runaway hit. In 2021, Trump will partner with One America News Network—already a mouthpiece for the President—for a primetime show that will stick it to Fox News. He’ll go head-to-head against Sean Hannity in the 9 p.m. slot, and steal away Laura Ingraham to serve as his TV Veep.
Student debt canceled
Eager to inject an FDR-esque stimulus into the economy as the pandemic rages on, Biden agrees to Senators Chuck Schumer and Elizabeth Warren’s resolution to wipe away 50 grand of federal debt per borrower. The executive order bypasses Congress and survives multiple legal threats, thanks to broad wording in the Higher Education Act of 1965.
Habers gonna Habe
Fresh off a whirlwind tour documenting the Trump White House, star New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman lands a lucrative book deal and—in her typical prolific fashion—manages to publish the account just before year’s end. The memoir immediately rockets up the bestseller list of her employer. Expect a television adaptation to follow.
Tech: The shadowy valley
It will be a year of reckoning for denizens of the tech industry as their unchecked behavior catches up with them.
The internet goes private
Platforms like Discord, Telegram, and WhatsApp have grown massively in recent years by helping users create invite-only chats and channels tailored to particular interests or real-world social groups. That will only accelerate, thanks to worries about social media’s effects on our privacy, mental health and, in the U.S., political divides so deep they seem unbridgeable—especially on Facebook.
Driverless cars will kill (again)
In 2018, an Uber test vehicle became the first self-driving car to strike and kill a pedestrian. Now Waymo has dozens of them on the road in Arizona, and Tesla is promising self-driving software in all of its vehicles soon. But the technology is still developing, and even perfect robots can’t prevent every accident, so Uber will have (tragic) company soon enough.
Bitcoin sinks but remains a treasure
Bitcoin will hit an all-time high of $50,000 next year, right before—as usual—crashing. But when the dust settles, the price of the OG cryptocurrency will sustain around $20,000. More investors will flock to the so-called digital gold, largely as a hedge against inflation, as regulators finally approve a Bitcoin ETF.
Google settles antitrust case
The Justice Department’s antitrust case against Google is limited in scope, focusing only on search listings and based on behaviors that have been going on for more than a decade, like Google paying Apple to be the default on iPhones. Expect Google to settle as it has in Europe over similar charges. Consumers will probably get a choice of search engines when buying a new device, and exclusive deals will be out.
A folding phone succeeds
The first folding smartphones had a few things in common besides trying to combine the portability of a phone with the larger display of a tablet. They were powerful, but delicate—and rather expensive, ranging from Motorola’s $1,500 Razr to Samsung’s $2,000 Galaxy Z Fold 2. But companies like Motorola, Xiaomi, and Samsung are relentless at pushing high-end features down to entry-level models. Just as they did with OLED screens and 5G modems, expect at least one of them to offer a folding phone selling for just three figures in 2021.
Global: BoJo’s Brexit and China’s vaccines
The past four years have been but a prelude to the true chaos of Britain leaving the European Union.
Brexit food shortages
Although it is now belatedly spending $1 billion to build new border infrastructure, the U.K.’s preparations for Brexit remain incomplete. Expect miles-long lines of trucks at U.K. and French ports, and the very real possibility of food and medicine shortages.
Boris Johnson may have once prevaricated about Brexit, but his political identity is now bound to it. British businesses will soon learn the reality of the project, and it is unlikely to go well. Expect Johnson’s premiership to meet an early end.
China vaccinates the world
In 2021, Chinese vaccine makers will supply more vaccines globally than Western firms. Chinese companies currently in Phase III trials are focusing on technologies that won’t require as much cold storage capacity as mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, increasing the likelihood that developing countries will be able to support importing and distributing them.
Hottest year on record
Surface temperatures across 2020 indicated it was in the running to beat 2016’s inauspicious record, and 2021 could be worse still. That’s despite global lockdowns that kept cars off the roads and shut down factories. But emissions are cumulative, and temperatures don’t drop on one year alone.
Health: The pandemic has forever changed public health
The behaviors we’ve learned during lockdown are now just how we live.
Virtual doc visits are here to stay
Telemedicine was always the wave of the future; the COVID pandemic just hastened its arrival. As hospitals remain overwhelmed with coronavirus patients, many medical centers have had to cut back on procedures that take place on-site. CVS and subsidiary Aetna beefed up discounts for telehealth visits during the outbreak, and the total market could near $25 billion in the U.S. alone by 2027. Don’t expect this wave to crest post-pandemic.
Vaxxers beat out anti-vaxxers, narrowly
With promising candidates from Pfizer and Moderna, medical experts say they expect widespread distribution of coronavirus vaccines by the middle of 2021. But persuading people to get one is its own challenge. Polls have fluctuated but suggest only 50% to 58% of people will definitely get vaccinated.
Face masks will be worn on New Year’s Eve 2021
There’s a reason why in East Asian countries you see people wearing face masks in public spaces. Some of that boils down to personal hygiene preferences. But regions that have seen widespread, airborne, infectious diseases ravage their communities tend to keep wearing them even after the immediate danger has passed. So don’t be surprised if face masks remain a part of your daily routine.
ACA survives another fight
A GOP-led lawsuit seeking to scuttle Obamacare has already faced skeptical questioning from conservatives Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Expect the Affordable Care Act to live another of its nine lives.
Culture: Delayed Gratification
Next summer will be about celebrating everything we put on hold in 2020.
Jeff Bezos buys an NFL team
Many thought it would happen in 2019 or 2020, but in 2021 Bezos finally uses his fortune to get ahold of one of the most valuable franchises in sports, whether it’s the nearby Seattle Seahawks or the Washington Football Team. Either way, he’ll cough up a record amount for a sports franchise of any type, and the Mark Cuban comparisons will abound.
An Olympic bubble
“Bubbles” set up by the NWSL and the NBA proved sporting events can still be held safely, and they’ll be the model for the Tokyo Summer Games. Expect many drastic changes, including welcoming far fewer ticketed attendees, having athletes quarantine weeks prior to the opening ceremonies, and regular testing for the duration of the competition.
Money moves to TikTok
How naive we were to think YouTube and Instagram would stay pure. Then ads and influencers flooded feeds. They’re now colonizing the TikTok Wild West, and in 2021 the app is fated to evolve into a full-on business model. Retailers are already pressuring employees to plug them via TikTok. So enjoy the dogs with butter on them (buttadog!) while you can, before they become Kerrygold ads.
New summer of love
After a year of social distancing and staying indoors while watching death tolls tick up over the winter, young Americans need a release. The widespread distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine will coincide with the summer of 2021, just in time for parks across the country to turn into full-on party zones. Think Woodstock-esque full-time gatherings in public outdoor spaces.
A posthumous Oscar
Following a year of cinema hampered by delays and theater closings, Academy voters decide the late Chadwick Boseman saved one of his best performances for last. The beloved Black Panther posthumously wins Best Supporting Actor at the 2021 Oscars for a star turn in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, his final film appearance.
Quinton Byfield, hockey player
The highest-drafted Black player in NHL history will star for the L.A. Kings this season and use his prodigious skating skills, quick hands, and size to win Rookie of the Year.
From America, now based in the U.K., 24-year-old Ashnikko found viral fame on TikTok with her song “Stupid.” Her debut album, Demidevil, comes out in February 2021. Her brash style feels new but is catchy enough to make it on pop radio.
Teezo Touchdown, rapper
Teezo Touchdown is a guitar-shredding Beaumont, Texas, native who seamlessly blends rap, rock, and the avant-garde in a way that conjures the sounds of Rick James, Richard Hell, and Tyler, the Creator. Believe us, it works.
By the numbers
S&P 500 at the end of 2021
Stocks will keep climbing as new vaccines gradually awaken more industries from their pandemic-induced comas. But rising interest rates and slowing growth in Big Tech will keep markets out of stampeding-bull territory.
$50 per barrel
Price of oil at the end of 2021
Even with a full economic recovery, demand won’t reach pre-COVID levels, as the work-from-home crowd continues to avoid business travel and commuting. Demand from emerging markets will keep prices from crashing outright.
Black CEOs running Fortune 500 companies
There are currently just four Black men (and no Black women) running Fortune 500 companies, and one of them will retire in March. We expect modest but meaningful change on that front next year: Three Black CEOs will be hired, including one woman.
How we did last year
We predicted a strong year for the S&P 500, though weirdly we were too conservative. We said the election polls would be wrong again, even after pollsters made corrections for errors from 2016. We also foresaw that Tesla would raise more capital, that the video-chat app Houseparty would be a hit (though we couldn’t explain why), and that 37 women would be in charge of Fortune 500 companies.
In the ballpark
While Joe Biden didn’t put former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams on his ticket, she did play a crucial role in his campaign, helping to deliver the Peach State for the President-elect. We got a reality TV show starring the Conways—one that played out on TikTok instead of Bravo.
There were no Roaring Twenties garden parties; the new James Bond movie was delayed; and just about every major event was put on hold. Angela Merkel has kept her coalition together; the specter of negative interest rates in the U.S. evaporated; and Carrie Lam is still the boss in Hong Kong. Though there’s always the chance we were not wrong, just early.
Crystal Ball contributors: Maria Aspan, Lydia Belanger, Daniel Bentley, Katherine Dunn, Erika Fry, Nicole Goodkind, Robert Hackett, Brett Haensel, Matt Heimer, Aric Jenkins, Jeremy Kahn, Rachel King, Rey Mashayekhi, Grady McGregor, Jake Meth, David Meyer, McKenna Moore, David Z. Morris, Sy Mukherjee, Aaron Pressman
A version of this article originally appeared in the December 2020/January 2021 issue of Fortune with the headline “2021 Crystal Ball.”
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