Every year sees its share of market and business trends. Sometimes these are fleeting, and sometimes they gain strength and have a lasting impact on the market. 2020 hasn't spurred as many brand new trends because many of us are focused on surviving both the economic and health challenges around the pandemic.

What has happened in 2020, however, is a hard acceleration of some existing trends that were already reshaping the market and business environment in prior years. We'll look at which trends the pandemic has accelerated and what some of the longer-term impacts could be.

Key Takeaways

  • 2020 has been a challenging year from an economic perspective.
  • As a result of the pandemic, businesses are turning to automation, the unemployed are being pushed toward the gig economy, and governments are borrowing like mad to keep their economies going.
  • While the pandemic has accelerated these trends, the trends themselves can still change or reverse over time.

Automation

The COVID-19 pandemic upended a lot of industrial design up to this point. We've been steadily optimizing buildings, factories, processing plants, and other manufacturing environments to keep the human laborers close together with the machinery to make the most of the space. Reversing this trend wouldn't make a lot of economic sense, as spreading out a manufacturing floor to accommodate social distancing would likely affect both line speed and overall productivity. The obvious solution is to remove more of the people where possible by increasing automation even more.

Industries that were particularly hard hit by the pandemic, like food processing plants, will most likely increase automation spending sooner than they would have otherwise. This could be good news for companies like Rockwell Automation, Inc. (ROK) and Emerson Electric Co. (EMR) that specialize in automation solutions. Unfortunately, both companies are currently more exposed to oil and gas, where labor savings can be significant. The solutions these companies (and others) offer could be bent to other automation-hungry industries if the oil and gas sector continues to languish in 2021.

Gig Economics

It seems a bit poetic that DoorDash, Inc. (DASH) and Airbnb, Inc. (ABNB) had their initial public offerings (IPOs) in 2020. Fiverr International Ltd. (FVRR), which did its IPO in 2019, is up almost 800%. Upwork Inc. (UPWK), another freelancing/gig platform, is up almost 300% this year. This recent string of stock success in the gig economy space isn't by accident of course. The pandemic has forced even more people to explore the gig economy as other jobs have been locked down. Although we aren't quite in the situation where we have more permanent, stable jobs than we have working age people, that situation is looking less laughable than it used to.

Younger generations have already acclimated to running a side hustle on top of regular employment to make up for stagnant wages. Hopefully the pandemic hasn't permanently destroyed too many jobs, and new opportunities may emerge as companies reshore production due to supply chain weaknesses the pandemic exposed. That said, increasing numbers of people will still be trying out the gig economy out of necessity well into 2021, and for many, it may become a lifelong practice.

Government Borrowing

Government borrowing was already huge before the pandemic. In the United States, the mortgage meltdown was the original accelerant on what was already a growing pile of government borrowing. If you plot government borrowing as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP), the growth looks less alarming than seeing the debt go from under $6 trillion in the year 2000 to $13 trillion in 2010 and now around $27 trillion in 2020. That is better than doubling every 10 years, and it doesn't look likely to slow down, with the 2020s already slated to have another stimulus package sometime in the New Year.

Of course, pandemic-driven sovereign borrowing is far from a solely North American problem. We are in a situation much like 2008 through 2010 in which countries are piling on debts all at once and some of them will inevitably be unable to carry that fiscal load. When the austerity budgets hit, it may well drag on the global economy like the financial crisis did.

The Death of Malls

The death of malls was already happening prior to the pandemic, but this was one of the trends the pandemic has accelerated mercilessly. The retailers relying on foot traffic have suffered enormously as a majority of retail has moved online due to the pandemic.

There may always be a place for in-person shopping, but the current mall footprint looks overbuilt for a world in which almost all shoppers have online experience now. The death of malls will, of course, push commercial landlords to find a way to diversify and repurpose that real estate, but many of their former tenants won't be around for the rebirth.

Big Data Uptake 

The incredible value of data is recognized in most industries, but the adoption of big data collection and analysis practices has been critical for the health response to the pandemic in many jurisdictions. This means that the public sector will be pushed to digitize and embrace data as openly as the private sector has. We will see more and more of our bureaucratic interactions take place through online portals designed to aggregate and anonymize data to inform policy, program development, and budget decisions.

Private industry is already on this path, but the pandemic may introduce some uncomfortable twists to how employee data is collected and used. Asymptomatic spreaders in the workplace have shut down production lines and prompted updates to business continuity plans. We may well be heading into a future in which employers require an internet-connected device to monitor your temperature, heart rate, and other vitals prior to entering and during your time in the workspace. 

The Bottom Line

At the end of the day, the pandemic accelerated some trends that were already worrying to begin with. Very few people want to be replaced by a machine, depend on the gig economy for their income, have their vitals tracked by work, or bid farewell to malls entirely. It is worth remembering, however, that trends can reverse and even morph as they develop.

In the middle of a pandemic – albeit one with an endpoint finally in sight – every trend seem ominous. In better economic times, we might see more of the positives or potential in these trends in terms of flexible income (gig economy), freeing people for more meaningful work (automation), and cheaper goods delivered to your door (death of malls). However, the growth of government debt and the lack of robust data and privacy laws governing businesses is hard to spin positively. Sorry – this is still 2020.