6 ways our post-pandemic world will be different

When COVID-19 is reined in and humanity enters the new normal, expect transformations in learning, work, communication, and technology.

This story appears in the November 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.

The future has never been easy to forecast, and the coronavirus makes life even more unpredictable. To gather informed perspectives on how we most likely will live, learn, work, and communicate when we reach the new normal, National Geographic interviewed a range of experts and leaders.

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New Ways to Learn

One positive aspect of schools closing may be how districts are innovating to improve learning from home. Although equal access to tech remains a barrier, tools will be designed that may bridge divides. K-12 students will use technology to help with homework, set goals, and measure progress. And college students may find campus to be optional, Arizona State University president Michael Crow says. ASU is one of a number of schools evolving into a new “national service university,” ballooning its enrollment to provide high-quality and low-cost education on a larger scale.

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Balancing Work, Life

The future of work won’t be fully remote, but it won’t be clustered in offices, either. “It’ll be a hybrid,” says Martine Ferland, CEO of Mercer, a human resources firm. Smaller offices will be hubs for occasional in-person collaboration, while enhanced digital tools—such as better video chatting—will support workers at home. And more emphasis on balancing productivity with personal needs will allow employees to organize their work hours to fit their schedules. Flexibility, Ferland says, will be the ultimate job perk.

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Tech Leads the Way

Broadband access has never been equal. The pandemic exposed that divide. Yet advances in high-speed 5G telecom networks will fuel a growth spurt in fields from telemedicine to banking, education, and transportation, offering faster connectivity and greater access. “This will be a tidal wave of change,” says David Grain, CEO of Grain Management, a private equity firm focused on the telecommunications industry. More efficient networks will reduce costs and help small businesses leveled by the pandemic reach new customers and grow.

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Remote Possibilities

The internet has made it possible for millions of people to work remotely, but it’s put us at risk from cyberattacks. Jesper Andersen, CEO of cybersecurity firm Infoblox, says that “it’s a lot more complex to secure an all-remote business,” let alone a telehealth office or a network for self-driving cars. Today’s VPNs (virtual private networks) won’t function efficiently with millions working from home long term. Decentralized servers will increase speeds, and more elaborate ways to log in will strengthen online security.

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Get Out and Stay Out

U.S. national parks saw dramatic drops in visitors last spring—but then numbers rebounded, as did sales for RVs and bikes. The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics says that recreationists reported going outdoors more often this year and also shifting from adventure sports requiring travel—skiing, climbing, backpacking—to closer-to-home activities such as bird-watching, gardening, and bike riding. Many cities closed streets to make room for outdoor dining, public events, and parks.

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One Planet, Two Crises (by Robert Kunzig)

Public concern in the United States about global warming hit an all-time high last November, according to researchers at Yale and George Mason Universities. Large majorities of Americans think human-caused global warming is real, and they feel worried and even personally responsible. Surprisingly, a survey in April found that COVID-19 hadn’t displaced concern over the climate—though it had reduced media coverage of it. “The issue seems to have matured, seems to have solidified,” Anthony Leiserowitz of Yale said. “I think that’s a really encouraging sign.” (Follow National Geographic's comprehensive coronavirus coverage.)

Editor’s Note: This article was updated on October 19, 2020 to reflect David Grain’s current title.