From infrastructure and energy to civility and conservatism, we are poised for major shifts in the months ahead
Predictions serve a purpose. The practice of making predictions forces us to think about the past, look for trends, and consider how current events will impact the direction of the issues we choose to examine. The unfolding of 2021 calls us to such reflection. Future generations will study this moment we’re living through, analyzing the social, public health, and economic fallout of the confluence of so many watershed moments. We’ve faced many hard things as a nation, but we’ve never seen anything like this moment. To help us think about what’s next, and to consider how the coming months could play out, I offer the following 11 predictions. These aren’t guarantees or bets — in fact, I hope some issues turn out better than what I’ve envisioned. Rather, these are flags in the sand, waypoints that can help us think about what is coming and look back upon for reflection as the year passes.
The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us many things, chief of which might be that society depends greatly on broadband. I interviewed someone recently who pointed out that if the pandemic had happened 10 years ago, we would have been in really big trouble. Think about it. Bandwidth speeds were considerably lower a decade ago, and millions of people had no broadband at all. All those jobs that went home would have been hamstrung at best and lost at worst. No Zoom conference calls to collaborate with coworkers and clients. No connections to company servers to share large files. No endless connectivity to conduct business uninterrupted. Some regions would have been fine, sure, but rural America would have suffered greatly.
Now think about education. Teachers wouldn’t have shifted suddenly to virtual classrooms; they would have been unable to teach. Students would simply have been at home, unable to remain in touch with teachers and classmates and continue their learning.
And how about health care? I’ve had several appointments with my neurologist over broadband. As someone who lives with a rare disease, these visits are important. Telehealth technology has kept me on track while avoiding the risk of a visit to a major university health care facility. I know people who have used telehealth for routine visits as well. None of this would have been possible 10 years ago.
Pardon the long introduction (I’m passionate about this subject), but that sets up my first prediction: We will move quickly as a nation to solve the rural broadband challenge once and for all. It won’t happen in 2021 or 2022, but we will move more aggressively than ever before toward the goal of ending the digital divide.
This is not a sudden shift, but rather an acceleration of a trend. Coming out of the Great Recession, the Obama administration passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that included billions of dollars in broadband stimulus funds. Working with rural broadband providers, I had a front-row seat to the impact this had. New jobs were created as contractors grew their crews to install all the new fiber that was being financed. Providers, many of them community-owned utilities such as electric and telecommunications cooperatives, committed millions of dollars in order to secure additional millions in federal support, building reliable fiber networks that will serve their communities for decades to come. This trend continued through the Trump administration, whose ReConnect program has invested over a billion dollars in rural broadband. Another $600 million-plus for ReConnect was approved in the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, signed into law in December. The FCC is preparing to award more than $9 billion in broadband support through its Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. As President Biden lays out the initiatives for his administration, we see broadband investment taking center stage not only to support jobs, education, and health care but also as a job creator unto itself.
There may well be folks reading this who remember a time when not everyone had access to electricity. There are certainly people who remember when reliable phone service was not ubiquitous. I look forward to the day when I can sit in my rocker and tell my grandkids and great-grandkids about a time when not everyone had broadband, and watch them struggle to imagine an America where millions were not connected. I believe we’re headed that way.
People want a reliable energy source. They want the power to stay on, all the time. Fossil fuels play a vital role in that reliability, and will for a very long time. Pie-in-the-sky fantasies about being 100% renewable by whatever near-term date will prove too ambitious. However, the move in that direction is powerful and will not slow down. The momentum is there among professionals in the electric power industry across the country, and that includes the Southeast. Organizations of local power companies have been positioning themselves for years to be ready for — and take advantage of — technology that is changing the power grid. They are preparing for the reality of distributed energy, where a percentage of the power they sell to their customers is generated locally, on their grid. In my region, utilities have negotiated with TVA to control a portion of their wholesale purchasing in light of that. They aren’t sitting by to see what happens, they know what is happening — and are indeed making it happen (consider the Project Liftoff partnership between Seven States Power Corporation, the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, and Huntsville Utilities). I predict this trend will continue, as more and more people realize it’s not only good for the environment of the planet we hope to keep inhabiting for a few more centuries, but also for the economy. The energy sector will continue to adapt and grow as a source of good-paying jobs, and our investments in technology will bring new, exciting developments into our lives.
3) Rural Development
For many people reading this, when I say “Green Acres,” the theme song to that television show will pop into your head and you’ll be able to sing most of the words. For those not familiar, I’ll give you the first few lines:
Greeeeeeen Acres is the place to be
Faaaaaarm living is the life for me
Laaaaaaaand stretching out so far and wide
Keep Manhattan just give me that countryside
Many of us who are blessed to call rural America our home share that sentiment. We love the space, the vistas, the lifestyle, and the people. My wife and I love the fact that we can sit on our back deck, looking through wooded acres and watching the creek flow by, yet are able to hop in the car and be in one of several major cities for entertainment, shopping, and dining within one to three hours.
While we recognize the challenges rural America faces, we wouldn’t trade it for life in the big city. I wrote about this in more detail on The Daily Yonder, so I’ll keep it short here and say I predict that an increasing number of citizens will be drawn to our quality of life and look for ways to make a move to smaller communities. This will become more practical as broadband becomes more widely available in rural areas. This represents an excellent opportunity for rural communities to attract people who want to work and contribute, raise their families, and support schools, churches, civic organizations, and the local economy. People who will open new businesses and bring fresh ideas to our small towns. Those communities that embrace this opportunity and take steps to position themselves for it will reap the benefits.
4) Arts Renaissance
My wife and I haven’t been shopping or dining since late February 2020. And while we miss these outings we once took for granted, we miss live music even more. There are many wonderful music venues within a reasonable drive of our town, and some of our favorite experiences as a family have centered around live performances.
The live entertainment business has been decimated by the pandemic, artists and venues alike. And it’s not going to get better for several months, I’m afraid. When we get the virus under control, I predict we will see the floodgates of pent-up demand burst wide open with a renewed interest in the arts unlike anything this generation has seen.
I predict this for a few reasons. First, there’s the pent-up demand I mentioned. Folks are ready. Second, people need a distraction, a healing balm to help move past the hard times we’re coming through. Finally, the arts are about community, and people long to gather with others for shared experiences.
This won’t just impact musicians and venues, but will include theatre, festivals, museums, fairs, and other events where people come together to create, collaborate, be enriched by other creatives, and share song and laughter with fellow human beings. I can’t wait.
5) Middle Majority
In 2012 I was visiting with a client in a rural Appalachian community. I settled in for lunch with several of their team at a wonderful local diner. Something was said about the presidential debate that had aired the night before between Obama and Romney, and I mentioned that I had watched it from my hotel room. A lovely lady with a friendly smile paused, then asked me, “On CNN or Fox?” I replied, “ABC, actually,” and she didn’t know what to do with that except laugh a little. Why? Because I had been given a quick litmus test, and my A or B answer would have given her all she needed to know about me. In her mind (and granted, in the minds of many at that table) my preference for a network would have indicated my allegiance to a party and therefore my adherence to a philosophy. “Are you one of us, or one of them?”
I’m seeing a growing weariness of that narrow mentality — a trend that I predict will continue. Numerous people have reached out to me of late, privately, to say they appreciate some of the views I’ve shared on Facebook. They say it’s refreshing to see someone reason out the issues instead of reposting Trump memes and Biden memes, declaring the end of society as we know it, blasting everything about the left or right, Republicans or Democrats. They have watched as people — good people, thinking people — have come at me for views I’ve expressed that leave them obviously confused because they can’t drop me cleanly into one bucket or the other. This can best be summed up by a phone call I received one morning from a long-time friend who said, “Stephen, do you have a minute? I just need to talk with someone who hasn’t lost their mind.” We shared a laugh, then lamented about the folks in our own community whom we see posting the most awful stuff on Facebook, with words that run counter to the character of those persons we know in real life.
I believe we’re starting to see a trend that will accelerate, as people realize that the narrative of the fringe — again, on both ends of the spectrum — is narrow, immature, and counterproductive. And also dangerous. The events of January 6 in our nation’s capital was a wake-up call for many, and I believe will prove to be a watershed moment that will expand what I’m calling the Middle Majority.
Many believe we are past the point of reconciling the divisions in our nation. I choose not to believe that. I believe there are more of us who understand that neither side has all the answers, that there are good policies and bad policies in both parties, that there are common-sense and dangerous ideologies in both parties. I predict this trend will continue as people increasingly realize that the danger lies in the fringe, and that the litmus test of “are you one of us or one of them” is not the best path toward a better society.
This prediction is not that hard to envision, as we’re already seeing some indicators that point in this direction. I predict that, like waking up from a vivid dream, a significant percentage of right-leaning citizens will clear the fog, shake their heads, rub their eyes, and think, “Wow, did that really happen?” They will think about the modern conservative ideals that began to take shape in the late 70s, early 80s, and realize that a real estate tycoon and reality TV host was not, after all, the embodiment of the movement’s future, but rather a talented showman and master of rhetoric who hijacked that movement for the power and spotlight his ego demanded. They will look around and find true self-sacrificing leaders with strong ideas backed by solid principles, along with the ability to work with people of all persuasions to bring those ideas to the forefront. They will discover a refreshing voice of reason, one that appeals to the better parts of us all, one who maintains their values while refusing to pander to the fears of the extreme segments of society. He or she will rise to the top among presidential hopefuls, with a great many of the Middle Majority breathing a sigh of relief at a voice of reason that acknowledges there are good ideas worth championing on both sides of that thin line that currently separates the two parties. This person will go on to return the White House to Republicans in 2024 (or 2028, depending on how close to center the current administration governs). Not “take back” … he or she will refuse the terms that indicate fighting and violence and force. This person will start reshaping the conservative movement, defining it for a generation just as Reagan did back in the day.
When we get to see people again in person and hang out without fear of a virus, I predict our public discourse will change. Not wholesale, but we’ll see a significant shift that will be noticeably more positive.
How did we get here? It’s a terrible formula. A health crisis spun off an economic crisis layered with a social crisis, and 2020 became the worst powder keg I hope any of us will ever see. The fear, uncertainty, pain, and hardship unfortunately (but predictably) brought out the worst in many people. One need look no further than Facebook, evening analysts on Fox and CNN, and the January 6 deadly assault on Congress. Humanity at its ugliest was on full display, and boy was it ugly. I saw it on my own Facebook posts and in my feeds (I even had to unfriend a few folks who were tearing through Facebook like arsonists, setting rhetorical fires to stoke more fear and hatred — people I knew to be men of honor and respect and Christian values at one point). A most telling example was when Birmingham meteorologist James Spann had to address his Facebook audience and call for a return to kindness because people had just lost their minds on the platform, posting hate-filled replies and flaming political takedowns in the comments to sunrise photos.
I predict not some great enlightenment, but that many people will realize how ugly they have been and perhaps that they have more in common with most folks than they think. This may take a spouse saying, “Honey, you’d never talk like that to someone in person … you’re kind of a jerk on Facebook,” or a grandparent hearing a grandchild ask, “Why is Pawpaw so mean on Facebook?” This may be more of a hope than a prediction, but I have to believe that some people are going to wake up and realize that sitting behind their phone or keyboard ranting and raving and being all hateful doesn’t do any good, but rather just divides our communities further into Us and Them. I predict/hope/believe that many will realize the harm they are doing and stop the poison.
We have vaccines, and that’s the good news. The bad news is that, from all indications, the virus is going to get worse before it gets better. But I predict that equation will look like this: 1) worse, 2) then better, 3) then much better.
There are several reasons why it’s going to get worse, not the least of which is the general fatigue of the entire situation and a weariness of continuing to follow public safety precautions. Of course, the medical community is juggling the fight against the spread of the virus with the fight against misinformation and conspiracy theories (Can you believe this is still a thing well into the 21st century?), and this certainly has had an impact. Further, while the speed with which science developed a vaccine is remarkable, it’s also obvious the real-world logistics of getting from the lab into arms is a tremendous undertaking. Unfortunately, while this is happening we’re going to see an increasing presence of the more contagious strain of the virus that’s shutting down the UK. Scientists are predicting this could be the new major strain in America by spring, and our vaccine program likely won’t be able to get far enough ahead of it to cut it off.
I say it’s going to get better because, one, we learn more each day about how to do this. I sat in on a webinar recently with CDC and FDA officials, and it’s obvious that we now know so much more about this tremendous undertaking than we did even a few weeks ago. Two, the Biden administration is focused on creating a more centralized, coordinated response effort that should scale immunization numbers quickly. If Congress can focus on the most important task at hand — putting this pandemic behind us — and not get tripped up by a Senate impeachment trial, I predict we will see a significant ramp-up in immunizations.
Now for the much better. Just imagine life when we no longer worry about getting infected with a virus that could kill us. Sure, the mortality rate is still a small percentage of infections, but I know many people who were seriously ill from COVID-19. Unable to work. Hospitalized. On a ventilator. And yes, dead. We’re on track to see half a million Americans dead from this thing. Imagine when the specter of that horror is lifted from our society. Imagine the family gatherings. The travel. The public events. The shopping and dining. The entertainment. We’re going to be a nation in celebration. This will be good for our physical health, good for our mental health, good for our economy, good for our country as a whole. Remember what happened after WWII? Think that level of recovery and growth.
9) All Things Remote
Remote everything will continue to increase as the practice becomes ingrained in how we work and live, and broadband connectivity becomes more ubiquitous. There is no going back.
In terms of employment, 2020 will be remembered as “The Year We Went Home.” Many studies show that remote work was becoming more common as we headed into the pandemic, but it was still a small percentage of the overall workforce. Now we’re seeing studies that say as many as 30% of the jobs sent home will not return to the office full time.
While some jobs cannot be done remotely, employers have discovered that a surprising number of tasks can be handled quite effectively via a distributed workforce model — and that efficiency and productivity have in fact increased because of it. I can personally testify to this. The company my wife and I founded in 1996 (which we sold last year and continue to work for) began to experiment with remote workers in 2011. Our first remote hire was staff member number seven. When the pandemic lockdowns began, we had a staff of 30 scattered across five states, with almost everyone working remotely. The pandemic didn’t interrupt our workflow (beyond the mental stress of the pandemic, of course).
Schools in rural communities were also experimenting with distance learning well before the pandemic, bringing instructors for advanced courses into their classrooms via smart boards. Likewise, schools were increasingly adopting technology to provide students with online access to curriculum resources and to allow them to upload homework directly to their teachers. This trend won’t reverse. The fallout of sending students home en masse will be studied and discussed for years (impact on social skills, an extrapolated “summer slide,” incidents of abuse and neglect, the effect on household income due to work interruptions of a parent, etc.), but the way we approach education — particularly in rural America — will evolve based on lessons learned from the pandemic.
Already we’re seeing changes in government regulations to respond to the need for telehealth adoption. No longer simply an interesting trend that supplements traditional delivery of health care, telehealth became the difference between receiving care and going without for many during the pandemic. An increasing number of states are recognizing medical licenses across borders, and basic health care and maintenance are generally becoming more accessible as technology becomes better, broadband becomes available in more areas, and connected devices become easier to use. Critical care in rural areas will continue to be a problem that needs to be addressed (we’re losing so many rural hospitals as a nation), but telehealth will make routine visits, remote monitoring, and basic maintenance more accessible and convenient — particularly for our aging population.
10) Trust Busting
My life is a testimony to the power of the free market system. I started a business in 1996 alongside my wife. We had nothing. We had to borrow money from a friend to buy a computer and printer. Across 25 years that business fed our family, created many jobs, and landed on the Inc. 5000 list of America’s fastest-growing privately held companies. We sold the business last year to a communications firm on the other side of the country, positioning it as a nationwide agency. This kind of story doesn’t happen without free markets. I dig capitalism.
However, while capitalism creates opportunities, drives solutions, and thus solves a lot of society’s problems, it also finds itself at the center of some of what’s wrong with society. Unchecked capitalism in the banking industry created the conditions that tanked our economy in the late 2000s and launched the Great Recession. An entire generation, many of whom had nothing to do with the causes yet suffered most of the effects, will never overcome the economic handicap. Regulations and tax laws heavily favoring corporations have created a shift in wealth that’s eating away at the middle class and centralizing unprecedented wealth among a very small percentage of society, leaving a huge swath of Americans to fight for the crumbs that are left. Upward mobility looks less like a marathon and more like a turtle race.
I predict we’ll see tax laws and regulations change to help restore some balance. Over the next four years, these changes will be so moderate as to be lukewarm and boring. The far left will be angry that Robin Hood didn’t swoop in dressed like a donkey and bust the piñata of redistribution, scattering the entirety of the one-percenters’ wealth across the masses. The far right will shout that all companies are moving, along with the rich and famous, to Switzerland or wherever to avoid higher taxes. What we’ll end up with — so gradually that many will fail to notice and the extremes will refuse to acknowledge — is an economy where the poor have the support to allow them to contribute to their families and communities, the middle class has new and exciting opportunities, and a majority of consumers have more disposable income to buy more goods and services from corporations … who will create more jobs … which will pump more money into the hands of consumers. A beautiful economic cycle.
Beyond money, this problem is also about power. Even the staunchest supporters of the free market system must look at the reaction among social media companies in the aftermath of the Capitol siege and say, “Okay, it’s time for a course correction.” We are living in an age when much of our communication, and even news consumption, happens over global networks that are free for us to use — thus making us the product. These companies sell access to eyeballs in a way that’s far more expansive and invasive than anything we could have imagined at the turn of the century. When Facebook can control what news you see, a line has been crossed. When Twitter can cut off the President of the United States from his audience while turning a blind eye to the violent tirades of tyrants, a line has been crossed. When Amazon can unilaterally decide to limit access to its services in a way that can put a company out of business overnight, a line has been crossed.
I predict 2021 will be the year when these issues begin to be addressed in ways that lead to substantive change. Antitrust lawsuits will be messy for a bit, but consensus will take shape. I believe some self-imposed changes will come ahead of legal rulings as these companies try to hedge against massive legal fallout by spinning off divisions, amending service agreements, and even adjusting how they engage with the end user. Public reaction will be mixed, with predictable support from the far left and opposition from the far right, but it will be evident that those shouting, “Government regulation is socialism,” are the same ones calling Twitter’s suspension of President Trump’s account a violation of the First Amendment. The Middle Majority will say, “Don’t overcorrect, but let’s get this centralization of power under control.”
11) Public Investment
It can be said that America is behind when it comes to infrastructure maintenance and development. Then again, that’s not an area where you’re ever really ahead. I predict, however, that we will see a significant increase in the investment of our tax dollars in infrastructure development. People on both sides of the Middle Majority lament the “wasteful spending” when the opposing party is doing the spending, but the fact is that partisan politics and economic reality don’t always align, and administrations from both parties have historically increased investment in infrastructure to boost our economy while solving real problems. And many people will realize, “Hey, it’s a good thing to have good roads and bridges, it’s a good thing to connect everyone to broadband, it’s a good thing to invest our tax dollars in ways that create new jobs and improve our quality of life.”
Yes, some of this investment will be controversial. For example, the FCC’s recent Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction awarded millions to Elon Musk’s Starlink, which hopes to blanket the sky with Low-Earth Orbit satellites that will connect us all to the internet. Early tests showed disappointingly low connection speeds, and engineers say for Starlink’s network to truly have an impact there will need to be many times more satellites in our skies. Is this an investment worth pursuing if it enables Starlink to perfect this technology and eventually play a leading role in delivering broadband to all of America? Some will say, “No, we have limited tax dollars available and should only invest them in proven technology.” Others will argue that public dollars play an important role in advancing technology, and this is a prime example that should be pursued.
We will also see controversy around solar technology and battery storage investments. There are those who view these as liberal wishful thinking, impractical technology that will never scale. Others see it as critical to our energy independence, not to mention a major weapon in our fight against climate change. I predict there will be increased attention focused on the impact such technologies have on job growth and scientific advancement as the general public becomes more aware of developments in these fields.
Less controversial will be the visible investment in repairs and new construction of roads and bridges, where heavy equipment and workers with hard hats are building lasting things that make transportation safer, less congested, and more convenient.
I don’t believe it’s an overstatement to say 2021 marks one of the top five defining moments in our nation’s history. The path we take as a whole will be determined by decisions made at all levels — from government leaders setting policy to individuals setting standards of personal conduct. When we return to these predictions a year from now, my hope is that we find ourselves healing on many fronts, growing and learning from others, and becoming better neighbors, citizens, and leaders because of the hard road we have walked with our fellow Americans.