Foresight: the many possible post-pandemic futures

Chapter Introduction

It did not take long for the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic to set in motion a series of profound upheavals across the world, not only in terms of health but also politically, economically, socially, industrially and culturally. In such a context of transformation, the usefulness of the foresight methodology, which involves the building of possible future ‘scenarios’, is to enable us to apprehend the multiple uncertainties inherent in such an event and to examine possible future developments and their probable implications. As defined by Ponce del Castillo, ‘Foresight is the umbrella term for methodologies and approaches that take volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity as their starting point, explore possible and probable futures (…), and generate insights and “cross-sights” that enable transformative actions in the here and now’ (Ponce del Castillo, 2019). In this sense, foresight can be seen as a decision-making aid in a context marked by a great deal of unpredictability.

A large number of prospective studies and other initiatives have been undertaken in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, reflecting this climate of uncertainty, particularly for business leaders (see, among others, the World Economic Forum initiative, ‘The Great Reset’), for economists (see, for instance, IMF 2020; for the eurozone, Wyplosz 2020), for investors (https://www.foresightgroup.eu/covid-19/), for the world of work (ILO 2020), and of course for policymakers (OECD 2020).

This chapter attempts to examine the possible or probable future transformations that will occur as a result of the 'polycrisis' resulting from the pandemic. It begins by outlining some basic facts about the foresight approach, before moving on to pose a question that takes into its sweep a wide range of issues: what are likely to be the main societal, technological, economic and environmental changes caused by the crisis? It will then develop these reflections in relation to a more specific political context: that of the European Union and, in particular, the eurozone. 

Between ‘key workers’ and the unemployed

Although it is difficult to quantify it, it is undoubtedly true that one of the most visible social transformations in these times of pandemic has been what could be called a reversal of the ‘hierarchy of trades’. In the spring of 2020, the populations of many European cities made a habit of going out on their balconies to applaud health workers: nurses, doctors, care assistants, and hospital, nursing home and social service workers. And during the lockdown period, it also became clear that without workers in the transport, logistics and retail sectors, people would not have been able to access the basic necessities. The importance of trades often considered inferior was suddenly brought to light. As Ian Gough writes, ‘the coronavirus has shown us who the key workers are’. According to him, the hegemony of the neoclassical theory of value, according to which price determines value, has shown its irrelevance, and we, therefore, need a new theory of value if we are to build a sustainable and resilient economy (Gough 2020). Assuming a rebound in the economy, a scenario in which these trades achieve greater recognition and better conditions is thus also plausible.

However, at the time of writing, the threats to employment that seem to be the most pressing actually concern other categories of workers with low or medium qualifications. According to a study by Spatial Foresight (Böhme and Besana 2020) which aggregates data from Eurostat and the ILO, the highest risks to employment are in manufacturing, tourism (hotels and restaurants), real estate, and culture (arts, entertainment, recreation), as well as retail trade (see Chapter 2). In addition to the risk of massive and long-term unemployment caused by a potentially lengthy crisis and uncertainties about the recovery (IMF 2020), another risk is that the impact on labour markets will be highly differentiated at the sectoral level. While some sectors are thriving and hiring in the context of the pandemic, others appear to be on the verge of collapse, putting very large numbers of workers out of work, and possibly permanently.

Telework does not work for everyone

Source: Eurofound (2020), Living, working and COVID-19 dataset, Dublin, http://eurofound.link/covid19data.
Survey question: 'During the pandemic, where did you work?' Answer: 'At home'.
Note: Excluded due to insufficient data: Cyprus, Luxembourg, Malta, Poland. Low reliability (*): Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, France, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Netherlands, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden.


One of the other most visible changes in the labour market has undoubtedly been the extremely rapid proliferation of telework (Figure 7.x) and the rather radical change in the attitude of some employers  (although sometimes forced into acceptance by national law) and many employees towards telework. Some technological companies, as well as more traditional industries, have announced that Covid-19 accelerated the development of teleworking by at least 10 years and that it will be the ‘new normal’ from now on, with no expected return to the old office-based work paradigm. This new form of work is presented (but also often perceived) as an opportunity to free oneself from constraints such as daily commuting, time lost in traffic jams or even supervision by the employer, and to regain to some extent a true ‘work-life balance’. The benefits – although certainly not considered as such by certain workers in low-skill trades servicing the white-collar middle classes that used to occupy offices but no longer do: cleaners, caterers, carers, etc. – may go beyond the individual worker, as telework can help to relieve congestion in cities and reduce CO2 emissions (on the impact of Covid-19 on CO2 emissions, see Chapter 3 in this volume). Such a massive switch to telework could, in the long term, also have an impact on the role and the function of offices (which would become mere meeting centres for when employees need to hold a meeting with the team or a client), on the value of office real estate markets, on how daily work is performed and working time is monitored, on the role of technological companies in providing contactless solutions, and on the transformation of cities.

However, as they become established over time, new teleworking practices may also reveal signs of a deeper social impact, including those related to wellbeing at work. A survey carried out in the UK (Bevan et al. 2020) reveals a significant increase in musculoskeletal complaints, reduced physical activity, long and irregular working hours and sleep loss. Other signs typically associated with this new, emerging type of hazard are lack of social interaction, work-life imbalance, and a feeling of isolation as well as increased stress levels, working longer hours (without extra pay) to secure employment, and anxiety caused by activity-monitoring and reporting required by employers. In addition, there is the fear of the rise of ‘surveillance capitalism’ (Zuboff 2019) with the possible, and in some cases already burgeoning, development of total digital surveillance by employers (involving undetectable monitoring of keyboard activity, application use, screenshots, webcam activation, data mining for facial recognition, etc.) (Degryse 2020). Finally, if the pandemic has had the effect of revealing social inequalities, and even accentuating them, telework has been one of its key indicators. In July 2020, an IMF working paper made this clear in its title alone: ‘Teleworking is not working for the poor, the young and the women’ (Brussevich et al. 2020b). The paper’s authors state: ‘We estimate that over 97.3 million workers, equivalent to about 15 percent of the workforce, are at high risk of layoffs  and furlough across the 35 advanced and emerging countries in our sample. Workers least likely to work remotely tend to be young, without a college education, working for non-standard contracts, employed in smaller firms, and those at the bottom of the earnings distribution, suggesting that the pandemic could exacerbate inequality.’ (Brussevich et al. 2020a; see also Chapter 2 in this volume). The uncertainties concerning the development of telework are therefore numerous: new social cleavages and accentuated inequalities, but also musculoskeletal disorders and psychosocial risks, could slow down the teleworking trend, or even stop it in favour of a return to the office (which, in turn, could lead to direct or indirect discriminatory practices).

Platform economy: from the Booking.com scenario to the Amazon.com scenario

The idea has occasionally been put forward that the pandemic has accelerated the digitalisation of the economy and, in particular, the platform economy. Trade in ‘contactless’ goods and services will have benefited greatly from containment and health measures. In addition, many digital tools were used to maintain professional relations and to organise meetings and online conferences, leading to a rapid rise of hitherto small companies (Zoom being an obvious example, a company that struggled to match the sudden demand and needed to expand their server capacity almost overnight). Indeed, some technology companies not only resisted the negative economic impacts of the pandemic but actually benefited from it.  Amazon has announced the hiring of tens of thousands of workers (taking their workforce number to 875,000 employees) and continues to hire. Apple, whose market capitalisation exceeded USD 2 trillion at the end of August 2020, announced that it is one of the largest job creators, responsible for 2 million jobs in the United States, including 80,000 employees in the US and 137,000 worldwide. Microsoft has not stopped hiring during the crisis (163 000 employees), while Netflix (8,600 employees) also benefited from the lockdown measures.

Upon further analysis, however, it appears that the effect of the pandemic on digitalisation has not been as uniformly positive for all sectors, including in the platform economy. According to the Layoffs.fyi Tracker project, launched when the pandemic was declared (11 March) and collecting all layoff announcements made by technology companies since then, the biggest layoff plans were those of Booking.com (25% of staff or 4,375 people as of 15 September 2020), immediately followed by two redundancy plans at Uber (a total of 6,700 people or 27% of staff), and then by Groupon (2,800 redundancies), Airbnb (1,900 redundancies), Yelp, Lyft, LinkedIn, Tripadvisor, etc. According to Layoffs, the five most affected technology sectors were transportation, travel, finance, trade and food. Current problems in the platform economy (see also Chapter 5 in this volume) could clearly have future ramifications for the sector.

One scenario could be that the pandemic will eventually wipe out a certain type of platform active in the most affected sectors. This is what we call the ‘Booking.com scenario’, with massive reductions of staff and workers, in which the very heart of the business (hotels, restaurants and tourism) is extremely vulnerable to the crisis and would probably not be able to withstand it if it were to continue. Conversely, another scenario is that of Amazon.com, where the hybrid nature of the business (as both an online sales platform and a storage and logistics company) and the business sector itself prove to be perfectly adapted to a pandemic context of containment and restriction of individual mobility. We could imagine a spread of such platforms in all contactless activities (commerce, e-entertainment, delivery, consumption). Finally, a third scenario could be that of Uber.com, a previously growing company whose activities have been severely reduced due to the crisis, but which, through diversification (Uber Eats, Uber Freight, etc.), manages to survive at the price of restructuring and workforce reduction, or even with a deeply transformed business model.


Christophe Degryse
Christophe Degryse

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