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The most underestimated risk factor in 2021

2020 is over, the year of the pandemic and the associated economic crisis, a deep global recession. Many eagerly waited for the new year 2021 to begin. The common expectation is that it is going to be a straightforward time. The basis of these optimistic expectations are vaccines – the first patients in some countries have already received them. This year, vaccinations are set to become commonplace. Along with this, activity restrictions (education, entertainment, commerce, etc.) will become history, if not in spring then certainly in the second half of the year. The mood of farms and businesses should improve significantly, and so should the willingness to spend money. People longing for meetings, traveling and news should eagerly reach for their wallets, buying various kinds of goods, spending on leisure and fun. In turn, companies should meet the delayed investment demand. Together with the increased expenditure, global GDP should recover from the losses incurred in 2020.

This is a possible scenario for 2021. But it is not the only one, as the risks must not be forgotten. I wrote about some related to the economy not so long ago in “Droga full of traps” (“Parkiet”, 1.09.2020). This time I would like to focus on another aspect, on social issues, which in my opinion are the most underrated risk factor in the context of 2021. Social aspects are often overlooked and are not taken into account at all in standard economic models and analyzes.

The aforementioned economic scenario of a strong rebound in the global economy next year tacitly assumes that people, tired of the pandemic, will happily return to their routine activities, to what they were before the crisis. That optimism and the will to spend money will dominate. Meanwhile, recovering from the shock we face today does not have to be easy, it can be full of paradoxes. There are at least several reasons.

First, at the individual and community level, we have faced enormous pressure over the past year. Starting from the issue of the threat to life (ours and our loved ones), i.e. what is the greatest value for the majority, through concerns about the financial sphere (income, loans, etc.), and ending with restrictions on various freedoms. While most people value a sense of stability, 2020 was a complete negation of that.

Second, 2020 brought not only a pandemic. In many countries, the foundations and certain narratives on which individual societies were built and which narratives organized their functioning have been strongly shaken. It is clearly visible in our country: the weakening of the authority of many important institutions, the deepening of the dysfunctionality of the political system, the “blowing up” of the abortion consensus, the final collapse of the myth that “the state can do it in all conditions”. When old narratives cease to exist, a need arises for new ones. And such – reordering social functioning – will surely arise sooner or later, but before that happens, we will go through a period of a kind of anarchy, clash of various ideas. This will be followed by very strong emotions.

The third issue relates to the long-term tensions that existed in pre-pandemic societies. In different countries, they were associated with various aspects, in Poland, for example, with the inconsistent assessment of the transformation period, the division into clear beneficiaries of this process and those perceiving themselves as those who did not benefit from it. Now there will be new dividing lines, especially between “young” and “old”. For many young people, this is the second crisis in the short term that will have a strong impact on their prospects: professional and life as such. More and more young people stop believing that within the existing system it is possible for them to repeat the path of their parents, that hard work will guarantee financial (earning) and life stability. This is one of the main reasons for whom young people, after years of apathy, go out to the streets in such crowds today. System changes are pending.
The fourth issue relates to the impact of the pandemic on underlying structural processes. As the coronavirus accelerated the pace of automation and robotization (I wrote more about it in “Pandemic, robots and the new socio-economic system”), the pandemic will exacerbate the problems at the interface between humans and technology. In the coming months, many people will be surprised to discover that their work has been automated, and thus that their competences have lost value.

Only this – incomplete – list shows that in the social sphere the coming times may turn out to be turbulent. The pandemic will bring many losers (those who will lose out on it one way or another), and it is hard to believe that the tension and emotions accumulated in individuals and societies will not seek an outlet. It is not at all certain that its basic form will be indulging in the madness of shopping. The more so as already in the years preceding the pandemic, it was possible to observe more and more irrationality of behavior or a growing tendency to support extremes (for example in politics) and to open more and more fronts and areas of conflict.

The lack of proper information makes it difficult to diagnose and develop scenarios in the social sphere; There are no – as in the case of economic issues – published monthly relevant data, there are not even good measures of what is happening in society. Besides, the social situation is like an iceberg floating on the ocean: what you can see outside (and what you can still try to describe and interpret) is only a part, because the rest is hidden under the surface.

The described social processes concern the most important issues for every human being: the sense of dignity and identity. They cannot be underestimated. The social equilibrium has been disturbed on so many levels that its stability can only be restored by open and bona fide social dialogue between the state and its citizens and between different social groups. A new social contract is also needed to adapt the relationship between capital and labor to the new reality. This must be accompanied by changes in socio-economic policy, reflecting this “new deal.” Countries that recognize the above issues and address the above issues have a chance to enter the post-pandemic reality in a relatively gentle way. Those who do not, still have a very turbulent road ahead.

Published: Parkiet, 04.01.2021

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