Big Ideas 2021: Seven predictions for the year ahead

And a podcast conversation with Ian Bremmer

Isabelle Roughol
Isabelle Roughol

For the last few years when I worked at LinkedIn, I was in charge of our annual Big Ideas series, a holiday-season game of predictions for what the year ahead might look like. It was occasionally embarrassing, always engaging and my favorite thing to work on. One of my first calls was always to Ian Bremmer for a look at the geopolitics. To be honest, I always wanted to fit in more geopolitics than was reasonable on a business and workplace beat.

Now my beat is all geopolitics and I wanted to keep up the tradition. So on the podcast, catch up with Ian Bremmer’s view of 2021 and below, read a few of my own Big Ideas for the year ahead mixed in with his observations.

Note: Members have access to a full transcript of the episode if you’d rather read.

The post-covid world will test our solidarity.

The decline in extreme poverty has been the global success story of the 21st century. The UN warns 2021 could be “the year of the grand reversal.” Extreme poverty — defined as living on less than US$1.90 a day — rose again in 2020, for the first time in 22 years. Famine looms: 235 million people will need humanitarian aid to survive in 2021, up 40% in just a year. The Covid-19 and climate crises compound the usual effects of conflict, corruption and unfair trade. While countries donated a record $17bn to humanitarian aid in 2020, it was barely half what was needed. The funding gap is likely to widen in 2021, as donors look to their own needs at home. Gulf nations are less generous than usual, and the UK cut £4bn from its foreign aid budget. The humanitarian shortfall would be just 0.2% of what rich countries have committed to shoring up their own economies. [UN Global Humanitarian Overview 2021]

We’ll get the covid vaccine. The poor won’t.

The new covid vaccines will provide the first test. Rich countries have signed deals granting them first dibs, hoarding 53% of available doses for just 14% of the world’s population, according to the People’s Vaccine Alliance, a collective of human rights organizations. Canada has secured enough to vaccinate its population five times over. Meanwhile, 9 out of 10 people in the world’s 70 poorest countries are unlikely to get immunized in 2021. Even if you set aside morality, that’s bad for two reasons: 1) We’re not done with this pandemic until everyone is done with it. 2) A vaccine is a powerful weapon of influence. China understands that. [The Guardian, CNBC]

Immigrants should brace for a backlash once more.

If it hadn’t been for covid, the big idea I’ve been digging into for a while is that immigration is actually the solution to the existential dread of rich countries — namely, their dropping birth rate and rising social security and care costs. The only (massive) question was how to have it smartly organized and culturally accepted. Scratch that for the next decade. In a tough economy, migrants are the first targets. Politicians will have to address unemployment and inequality at home. The best ones will stem xenophobic backlash; the worst will use it for their own ends. It’ll be hard enough defending immigrants where they are; we won’t expand freedom of movement. Frankly, it was true before the pandemic: we won’t win the ideological battle on immigration until we’ve seriously addressed inequality. I’m reminded of my conversation with Hassan Damluji earlier this year:

“Over time, there is an opportunity to build a case that we are as a human race in it together. (…) But forcing immigration down their throats now because you're okay with it, even if the majority isn't, is not the way to build a global community. It's the way to lead to a showdown.” [Borderline episode 03]

International travel will remain limited for much of the year.

It will take months for even the first countries to vaccinate to reach herd immunity. And ironically, those who do better have an incentive to remain closed to the world to avoid reimporting the virus. Australia has already said it will not reopen its borders until 2022. Airlines are battling for travel corridors and exemptions (you can now skip quarantine in the UK if you’re a “high-value business traveller”) but I don’t see international travel, especially by air, returning to anything close to normal next year. The aviation industry is looking at 2023 or 2024. That’s not just a problem for airlines or wannabe tourists. Tens of thousands of Australians abroad, for instance, are still denied entry to their own country. [Borderline episode 07, FT, Sky News]

Brexit and Trump are going away. Populism isn’t.

Deal or not, Brexit is done on 31 December. (We in the UK will deal with it for years, but the rest of you can forget about it.) Donald Trump is out of the White House on 20 January. But all the reasons behind both of them remain, made worse still by the pandemic, and not limited to these countries either. As Ian Bremmer told me:

“The level of populism, the anti-establishment sentiment in the United States is enormous and it's going to grow because the average American is going to be increasingly disenfranchised. This coronavirus crisis has not been a problem for well-educated, wealthy Americans. It's been a disaster for people that don't have college educations. It's been a disaster for people whose jobs don't allow working from home or social distancing. (…) You and I recognize that the election wasn't rigged. But in some deeper way, the American system is increasingly rigged for an increasingly small number of Americans. And that's a problem. We're not addressing that. Trump is the symptom of that. Trump was not the cause of that.” [Borderline episode 16]

Inequality is our biggest pandemic. And the pandemic will make it worse.

We know our economic system is broken, and the pandemic has not flipped the table. It’s only deepened its grooves. The same people bore the worst healthcare risks and the most dire economic consequences. We’re looking at a K-shaped recovery (if you can call it that) that will deepen inequality within countries and between them. Yet, if you want to extinguish the fires of populism, address inequality. If you want immigrants to live in peace, address inequality. And it turns out if you want to avoid a repeat of 2020, address inequality. Zoonotic pandemics are born in the fault lines between poor and rich communities, Dr Baltazar Espinoza explained to me. The ones have contact with wildlife, poor sanitation and little healthcare, the others travel. He added:

“We tend to respond on demand. We tend to look for a vaccine. We tend to look for a treatment or any control measure that will help us after we realized that there is an outbreak. But it is important to start working in creating systems that actually prevents the emergency of these type of events or epidemics.” [Borderline episode 12]

Look, I know this is all dark. There are bright points in 2021.

These, I got from Ian Bremmer:

  1. We might actually get more done on climate change than we would have without covid. I know, weird. Too much to get into, just listen to the episode.
  2. The crisis is hitting the parts of the economy that were going away anyway. It’s bad for inequality, but we’d be worse off if this had taken down the innovation economy, financial systems or our digital infrastructure. Some industries have leaped five years in one, and the entrepreneurial energy is real.

Vaccines. I mean, come on. Vaccines.

Listen to the episode

Note: Members have access to a full transcript of the episode if you’d rather read.

Global citizens’ square

  • Welcome new Borderline members Jacqui Banaszynki, Zan Variano, Chip Cutter, Lynne Everatt, Lisa Wyler, Jonathan Heawood and the mysterious dreamerz8413. I am amazed and grateful.

Wanna join them? Do it now. On Monday, I’ll be launching my members-only edition (there’s enough of them now), a curation of best reads and recommendations. [Patreon]

Subscribe now

  • Borderline friend and wonderful memoir writer Suchandrika Chakrabarti is running a workshop for those looking to get into personal essays. Sign up. [Eventbrite]
  • Julia Shipley asked me about my career pivot, going from big corporate job to sabbatical to pandemic to media artisan in just a year. It’s one of the more vulnerable interviews I’ve given and Julia flatters me tons in the intro. Check it out. [Nieman Storyboard]

Isabelle Roughol Twitter

Journalist, podcaster, media consultant. Telling stories & building better newsrooms. Writes The Lede. Ex- LinkedIn News, Le Figaro, The Cambodia Daily. 🎓 Mizzou '08, Birkbeck '25.