21 Global Developments to Watch Over the Next 5 Years
2020 will go down as one of the most anxiety-inducing, stomach-churning, confidence-sapping and downright disappointing years on record. While it began with a global fascination on the potential impeachment of the U.S. president, that news was quickly followed by the U.S. drone strike on Iranian leader Qasem Soleimani. Humorist Dave Barry’s year in review for 2020 eloquently captures what then followed: “Iran responds—this is a good indicator of what kind of year it will be—by shooting down a Ukrainian airliner.”
Global attention then rapidly (and completely) moved to the devastating impact of COVID-19. The zoonotic virus wreaked havoc on a horrifically large number of lives, threw economies into a tailspin, intensified growing mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety, put globalization into reverse and changed how we work, play, learn, teach and get medical advice.
The murder of George Floyd sparked unrest across the United States, Beirut was rocked by a major explosion that led to the resignation of the Lebanese government and anti-government unrest in Hong Kong was met with the imposition of a draconian national security law from Beijing. Chinese and Indian troops fought in the Himalayan mountains, resulting in several deaths. Oh, I almost forgot, America had a presidential election! (There’s been enough ink spilled on that topic that I don’t feel the need to add to it.)
All in all, it was a tough year. (On a positive note, polio was eliminated from Africa in 2020 and may soon be eradicated.) Amidst the raging pandemic, devastating locust swarms, massive flooding and rampant wildfires, it definitely felt like the end of the world as we knew it. But as Sonny Kapoor, the young proprietor of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, notes in the movie of the same name: “Everything will be alright in the end, so if it is not alright, it is not yet the end.”
As I’ve stressed before, uncertainty and change are unavoidable realities of life. Yet all of us are asked to make decisions in the face of these fluid dynamics, shifting relationships and seemingly constant instability. What’s the best way to do so? Sadly, there is no correct answer, but I believe we must look through some of the day-to-day noise to have any chance of identifying the structural signals. Long-term trends that drive seemingly disconnected developments offer a compass to guide us through the numerous crosscurrents that plague our lives.
Unlike many others who tend to make predictions on a one-year view, I opt for a five-year look, as I believe time allows signals to surface amidst the ubiquitous noise. I’ve been publishing these rolling predictions since January 2015, and regardless of how they actually fare, the act of considering them has proven helpful to me in navigating uncertainty. And in the spirit of Annie’s “just thinking about tomorrow…” in which she pleads for us to “hang on ‘til tomorrow, come what may,” I present my 2021 predictions.
1. Inequality intensifies into a growing (existential?) threat to capitalism. Socialism gains momentum globally as technology-induced job losses spur worker solidarity. Redistribution pressures build in the form of rapidly rising estate taxes and minimum wages. Efforts to introduce universal basic income schemes prove counterproductive as they dampen society’s efficiency and innovative capacity.
2. The power of Big Tech generates a backlash in which government officials call for the breakup of the information monopolies. The rapid rise of surveillance capitalism threatens human autonomy as global outrage over hidden corporate use of personal data generates popular support for regulations enforcing privacy protection.
3.India becomes a geopolitical hotspot. Tensions rise on the mountain border with China as well as the desert border with Pakistan, leading to several armed conflicts among the three nuclear armed nations. In an effort to combat Chinese influence in South Asia, the United States finds itself supporting India’s nationalist government, opening a new front with Russia.
4. As technological innovation continues to drive productivity gains, the world struggles to generate meaningful inflation in goods and services. Central banks of the world stick to their existing deflation-fighting playbook and continue flooding the world with money (and keeping interest rates lower for longer), inflating asset prices to unsustainable levels. When the Fed eventually turns to yield curve control to keep the party going, the value of “non-printable” currencies such as gold and Bitcoin soar to multiples of their 2020 highs.
The value of “non-printable” currencies such as gold and Bitcoin soar to multiples of their 2020 highs.
5. In an effort to promote greater diversity in governance, shareholder advisory groups Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS) and Glass Lewis begin demanding that the boards of publicly listed companies have at least one woman and one person of color.
6. Concluding that the U.S. security guarantees to its wayward province may not be backed with real military action, China increases the pressure on Taiwan to reintegrate with the mainland. Beijing succeeds in spurring a diplomatic process to explore reintegration, but persistent rumors of a forthcoming surprise attack by PLA forces lead Taiwan’s wealthy to move their families (and assets) to other jurisdictions.
7. NASA’s Artemis program successfully lands the first woman and the next man on the surface of the moon and announces plans to build an American moon colony using advanced materials. ICON, the construction technology company NASA retains for lunar construction, helps kick off a boom in space construction. Bacteria surfaces as an unanticipated challenge in space.
8. Global supply chains shift dramatically as “just-in-time, lowest-cost” logic gives way to “just-in-case, security-of-supply” objectives in corporate boardrooms. Companies around the world begin stockpiling raw materials and building inventories to buffer against possible disruptions. Although the physical distance between producers and consumers of goods shrinks dramatically as factories move closer to consumers, the “reshoring” doesn’t produce the expected number of jobs as the use of robots decreases worker demand.
9. As global wealth surges in the wake of strong asset markets, the retirement of America’s older workers accelerates. Boomers move away from saving and investing towards consuming. The virtuous cycle of flows driving prices driving flows turns vicious as the passive investing bubble pops, sapping investor confidence as broad index levels drop. Despite warnings about the imminent death of active management, stock-pickers outperform.
10. The ongoing vulnerabilities emanating from Chinese and Russian cyberattacks surface in unexpected ways, leading to persistent worries about whether federal government and private sector systems continue to be compromised. A chorus of disparate voices, ranging from cyber experts to national security professionals, call for a complete rebuilding of penetrated systems.
11. The increasingly polarized dynamic between Republicans and Democrats opens the window for the formation of a third major political party. Bull Moose 2.0?
12. Having successfully experimented with remote work during COVID lockdowns, CEOs of the world’s largest companies drastically reduce their real estate footprint by allowing some staff to work remotely and others to adopt hybrid in-office/remote arrangements. Office vacancies surge, leading to plunging commercial real estate values. Meanwhile, the mad dash to suburban real estate proves fleeting as the appeal of urban living returns post-COVID.
13. Synthetic biology advancements accelerate at a breakneck pace. Bacteria and other single-cell organisms that consume carbon dioxide are used as the raw ingredients for animal feed; food ingredient companies begin to market themselves as geoengineers fighting climate change.
Food ingredient companies begin to market themselves as geoengineers fighting climate change.
14. On the back of the intensifying U.S.-China great power rivalry, the global economy bifurcates into a Western-led and a Chinese-led ecosystem. While both economies are fairly self-sufficient, two glaring imbalances emerge: The Chinese ecosystem is deficient in food, while the West finds itself with inadequate supplies of critical materials. Enormous capital flows to address these strategic vulnerabilities, leading agricultural commodities and rare earth prices to hit all-time highs.
15. Personal data analytics that enable microtargeting and deepfake technologies, which use seemingly authentic videos of trustworthy sources, combine to drive a global surge in disinformation campaigns. High-profile individuals demand regulators intervene to create an authentication system to search for and rapidly remove fake videos.
16. Geopolitical competition in the Arctic leads to rapidly rising tensions as Canada, Russia and Denmark claim the Lomonosov Ridge—an almost 1,800 km underwater mountain ridge that runs from Siberia towards Greenland—as sovereign extensions of their territory. U.S. military exercises with NATO allies in the Arctic further agitate Russia, making the Kola Peninsula the world’s most likely site for a nuclear exchange.
17. The increasing attention on hypersonic weapons leads to breakthrough advancements in propulsion technology that prove useful in space. The U.S. military continues to declassify data on UFOs, spurring theories that the advanced capabilities were created by aliens. Ursa Major Technologies emerges as one of the world’s hottest companies.
The U.S. military continues to declassify data on UFOs, spurring theories that the advanced capabilities were created by aliens.
18. Jealous of the exorbitant privilege and power conferred on America through the U.S. dollar’s role as the de facto global reserve currency, a group of nations led by China and Russia present a hard currency alternative. The new option fails to gain meaningful adoption because the world’s largest pools of capital continue to demand rule of law and protection of property rights.
19. The electrification of the world continues unabated; the demand for key battery materials (specifically lithium, nickel, graphite and phosphate) at low costs far exceeds available supply, spurring a wave of vertical consolidation as electric vehicle makers begin acquiring battery technology, chemical processing and mining companies.
20. After decades of thinking about U.S. treasuries as a “safe haven,” global investors begin to question the sustainability of America’s ballooning debt as it is increasingly used to fund entitlement spending that offers little prospect of future returns. As concern about a potential default rises, The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 by Lionel Shriver is made into a movie.
21. Using lessons learned from the development of COVID vaccines and therapies, the global health community makes meaningful progress towards the elimination of human deaths from HIV, rabies, tuberculosis and malaria.
Each year, I end my predictions with the prescient words of John Kenneth Galbraith, who eloquently captures the essence of forecasters. There are, he notes, two types: “Those who don’t know and those who don’t know they don’t know.” Feel free to decide which you think I am, but I do hope that these 21 possibilities are useful in spurring your thoughts.
Best wishes for successfully navigating the uncertainty in the years ahead!
Vikram Mansharamani is a lecturer at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. He is the author of THINK FOR YOURSELF: Restoring Common Sense in an Age of Experts and Artificial Intelligence (HBR Press, 2020) as well as BOOMBUSTOLOGY: Spotting Financial Bubbles Before They Burst (Wiley, 2011). His podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Podbean, and he can be followed on Twitter @mansharamani.