Waking up in 2030
By Ross Douthat
There is something peculiar about time during the pandemic. On the one hand there’s a feeling that the normal calendar has simply stopped, school schedules and sports seasons evaporating, one homebound day passing much like another. It’s a feeling of hiatus, intermission, like the days between Christmas and the new year, or some extra season invented by a Renaissance pope to fix a lagging calendar.
Yet at the same time there’s a feeling of acceleration, of changes that might have otherwise dragged out across a decade piling one atop the other. The George Floyd protests and their electoral consequences, the transformation of liberal institutions by internal agitation, the changes happening to cities and corporations and colleges and churches — in each case, trends that were working slowly have seemingly speeded up.
This means that when the coronavirus era finally ends, there will be a Rip Van Winkle feeling — a sense of having been asleep and waking to normality, except that we will have time-traveled, and the normality will resemble the year 2030 as it might have been without the virus, rather than just a simple turn to 2021 or 2022.
What will this 2030-in-2022 look like? First, certain key cultural institutions will be increasingly consolidated and concentrated, academia and journalism especially. In the newspaper industry much of this process happened already, but COVID is delivering a swifter coup de grâce to midsize daily newspapers and online startups and handing advantages to a few national entities (ahem) that they might have otherwise taken five or 10 more years to gain.
In higher education a similar transformation is being pulled forward: Colleges were expecting a grim landscape in the later 2020s because 2010s birthrates were so low, but now a decline in foreign enrollment and an acceleration of online learning will threaten marginal state schools and possibly close small liberal arts colleges much sooner. (The coronavirus experience is also likely to push birthrates still lower, delaying any higher ed recovery by years or decades more.)
The likely winners will be the prestige schools and big state campuses, who will have the resources to survive and expand and the name brands to leverage in new online markets — although so long as pandemic fears keep kids close to home, the state schools may gain some ground at the prestige schools’ expense.
In religion, the pandemic may strengthen certain forms of faith, but that won’t save institutional churches from what Fordham’s David Gibson calls a “religion recession” caused by falling donations and shrunken attendance. Smaller churches may suffer most, for the same tight-margins, high-overhead reasons that restaurants are going under. But big religious bodies like Roman Catholicism and the Southern Baptists will probably decline as well, in a hurried-up version of the decay that awaited them with the next decade’s worth of generational turnover. (Any Catholic diocese that had a 10-year plan for closing or consolidating schools or parishes, for instance, can expect to do the same thing but much faster.)
In politics, similarly, what was likely to be a slow-motion leftward shift — as the less-married, less-religious, more ethnically diverse younger generation gained more power — is being accelerated nationally by the catastrophes of the Trump administration, which is putting states in play for Democrats five or 10 years early.
A political shift is certainly accelerating within elite institutions, where the younger generation is trying to establish a new ideological consensus, a new set of standards and boundaries for behavior and opinion, that otherwise would have advanced more slowly, with more contestation, over the next 10 years. (That these institutions are subject to the consolidating forces described above makes the battle to control them more important and the professional stakes more fraught.)
Finally, in corporate America, there may be trends toward both consolidation and dispersal. The former because even federal intervention probably won’t prevent small businesses from going under while bigger businesses ride things out, accelerating the preexisting drift toward a less entrepreneurial, more monopolist America.
But the latter because the remote-work experience, pandemic fears and possibly rising crime rates may encourage more companies to abandon the great consolidated hubs of the digital age, or at least fling more satellite campuses out to Idaho and Iowa and other lower-cost-of-living states, dispersing talent back into the heartland for the first time in two generations.
Of the trends I’ve described, only this last one seems like a hopeful sign that post-pandemic America might become less sclerotic, less decadent than the America of 2019. If one wanted to be especially optimistic, one could add that maybe — maybe — a corporate dispersal will reduce social stratification and help create new intellectual, journalistic and even religious centers.
But overall, the pandemic seems likely to bring us more quickly to a future of consolidated power, weakened human-scale institutions and growing ideological conformity. Along with far too many lives, that’s what’s likely to be lost in this strange between-time: a decade’s worth of chances to take an off-ramp, choose a different direction or just stand athwart 2030 yelling stop.