COVID-19 changed how we live and work in ways that will alter our behavior long after the pandemic subsides. Companies moved rapidly to deploy digital and automation technologies, dramatically accelerating trends that were unfolding at a much slower pace before the crisis. Work went remote, shopping, entertainment, and even medicine went online, and businesses everywhere scrambled to deploy digital systems to accommodate the shifts.
These changes in consumer behavior and business models will persist in advanced economies after the pandemic recedes, although perhaps not with the same intensity as during the crisis. They promise big benefits in terms of higher productivity, efficiency, and innovation—but also could lead to an uneven economic recovery, with rising inequality among workers, contrasting outcomes for consumers depending on their age and income levels, and a growing gulf between outperforming companies and the rest—unless business leaders and policy makers take action to mitigate these unwanted effects.
Here we draw on insights from three recent McKinsey Global Institute reports to offer a perspective on how the pandemic may reshape the future of work, consumer behavior, and productivity and growth over the next several years. The research focuses primarily on changes we have observed in advanced economies in Europe and North America. In Asia, where countries controlled COVID-19 more rapidly and effectively, the behavioral changes are less pronounced.
The actions we collectively take today—from investing in human capital to enabling a surge of entrepreneurship to diffusing technology to companies of all sizes—could create a virtuous cycle of job growth, rising consumption, and productivity growth. Lessons from past recessions reveal that this is not only possible but routinely occurred in many post-war recessions. Failure to act is likely to deliver a tepid, two-speed recovery like we saw after the 2008 financial crisis.
The pandemic accelerated changes in consumer and business behaviors that are likely to persist
The virus interrupted, accelerated, or reversed longstanding consumer and business habits.
Every activity and function that could move online did, fueling a mass digital migration. Companies sent their employees home and eliminated business travel, and many now plan to continue with some hybrid form of remote work and virtual meetings. Consumers went online to fulfil needs ranging from buying groceries and taking school classes to exercise and doctor appointments. Businesses also turned to digital tools in new ways. Auto dealerships used email, text messaging, Zoom, and Facetime to sell cars without any contact with customers, for example. Fast-food restaurants created “ghost” kitchens devoted solely to filling online delivery orders. Companies turned to automation and AI to cope with surges in demand and the need to reduce workplace density. Some of these changes delivered more convenience and greater efficiency and so are likely to endure well after the pandemic has receded.
Consumers shifted to digital channels
Many of the consumers driving that growth were new to online transactions. We found, for instance, that first-time online grocery shoppers accounted for 30 to 50 percent of total US consumers shopping online in July 2020, driven largely by baby boomers nudged by the pandemic to make a digital transition they otherwise might not have needed to make. “Home nesting” became popular, with many consumers investing to enhance their new homebound lifestyle (see sidebar, “Consumers focus on “home nesting”). Other virtual transactions took off, too. Telemedicine, for example, languished until COVID-19 came along. Online medical consultations via Practo, an Indian telehealth company, grew more than tenfold between April 2020 and November 2020. In France, the state health system reported 1.2 million virtual consultations in September 2020, compared to 40,000 in February 2020.
While curiosity about consumer behavior after COVID-19 abounds, we found that the actions of companies and governments matter at least as much in determining whether new behaviors are likely to stick, including signs of a move to more sustainable consumption in some places. For example, surveys show that between 30 and 50 percent of consumers indicate an intent to buy sustainable products—although such products account for less than 5 percent market share of sales in part because companies charge more for them and governments offer no incentives to purchase them. Companies made decisions that set the choices consumers could make during the pandemic, and governments established guardrails with their stimulus policies. To determine how enduring shifts to new digital channels may be, we examined consumption using a “stickiness” test we devised that takes into account the actions of companies and governments as well as consumers.
Geography matters in determining what behaviors will stick post-pandemic
Businesses shifted to remote work and virtual meetings
Companies accelerated their adoption of digital, automation, and other technologies
Steps taken to keep business going during COVID-19 have the potential to increase productivity
Is a two-speed recovery ahead for consumers, workers, and companies?
Shifts in business operations caused by the pandemic could spur faster growth—but also raise challenges for the most vulnerable workers.
Savings for some, income concerns for others
Most job growth may occur in high-wage occupations, leaving low-wage workers with fewer opportunities
The largest firms are innovating in ways that could boost productivity growth—but the risk is that smaller firms are left even further behind
Companies and policymakers need to take action to enable a robust and broad-based economic recovery
Widespread actions to boost productivity could lead to robust economic growth like that seen after World War II.
History offers lessons about how economies recover from crises
To achieve a broad-based recovery, companies and policy makers will need to move with the same alacrity they used to respond to constraints imposed by COVID-19 and, in doing so, enable higher productivity growth, better jobs, and expansive consumption. Ensuring that digital and other technology adoption is broad-based and that productivity increases are matched by rising wages is key. It will also be essential for business leaders and policy makers to mitigate workforce disruptions and offer support to vulnerable workers as they transition to new jobs with higher wages but requiring different skills. Achieving a better outcome is doable but will require faster, bolder action than we saw during the recovery after the 2008 financial crisis.
During the pandemic, many large companies developed strategies to support their small- and midsized suppliers. Continuing these actions are vital to delivering any potential productivity dividend. Many companies accelerated payments to some suppliers and helped them interpret changing government regulations. Other companies are helping their small and mid-sized suppliers digitize the supply chain, invest in sustainable operations, and utilize automation and AI to raise efficiency.
COVID-19 created opportunities to start new businesses
Additional unemployment benefits and stimulus checks that were part of massive government stimulus packages may have enabled these new ventures. Governments can support continued startup growth by extending the digital architecture to give everyone access to affordable broadband connections and by making permanent some temporary changes in regulation that allowed new businesses to flourish during the pandemic, such as telemedicine.
Enabling a sustained rebound in consumer spending will require stepping up retraining opportunities for workers displaced by automation and ensuring that young people entering the labor force have marketable skills. In advanced economies, having some type of credential, vocational skill, or tertiary degree can help achieve a career path with upward mobility. The scale of the retraining challenge goes beyond those workers displaced by the effects of COVID-19; even workers who keep their jobs will need to continuously learn new skills because the tasks required of them will evolve. For displaced workers, retraining programs could be delivered in a matter of weeks or months; for many mid-career workers, “wrap-around” support programs that provide income, food, transportation and childcare may be critical to enable participation in retraining programs.
Achieving a high-growth recovery requires firms to focus on revenue growth in addition to cost efficiency. That could drive higher productivity growth and increase employment, instead of greater productivity coming at the expense of employment. Previous MGI research has found that in periods when companies have developed new products and services that create demand, high productivity growth can result in employment growth. This may be happening now: In the most recent McKinsey survey on AI, a much larger share of companies reported adopting AI to create new business opportunities rather than to save labor costs than three years ago.
Private and public investments, smartly targeted, can also set the stage for sustained productivity growth. For example, several persistent investment gaps could be closed now, including in infrastructure, affordable housing, and green technologies. Human capital is as important as physical capital, and changes in the tax code could treat it similarly. Additional government investment in basic science and R&D, reverting to levels seen in past decades, would also help.
The pandemic marks a turning point for economies: new patterns of consumer and business behavior emerged at extraordinary speed and many of them will stick. Digitization accelerated faster than many believed possible. The near-term recovery will bring relief. Yet the pandemic’s uneven impact on workers, consumers, and companies threatens to create a two-speed recovery that widens inequality while delivering tepid growth. The disruption caused by COVID-19 also offers a path to higher productivity and broad-based growth, nonetheless, if companies and policymakers seize the opportunity to address emerging gaps.