The year 2020 was as hellacious as it was revealing. Here are 10 not-so-top takeaways from the year we wish had never been.

2020 was …

1. The most ironically numbered year of all time – literally no one saw the pandemic coming.

2. The year the internet came of age; can you imagine what it would have been like if we hadn’t had a way to carry on working, communicating, shopping, vibing, watching cat videos …?

3. A timeout for the Tumi-rolling, Amex-waving, point-collecting executive class who abruptly found their ancient-mariner-style wandering on hold. Some missed the Heavenly Beds™; some breathed a secret sigh of relief.

4.  Proof we tech evangelists were right. Those organizations that had made real progress establishing modern digital capabilities (in selling, operating, managing, etc.) kept on keeping on; those that had listened to me and my tribe (Stageius Pontificatius) but had rolled their eyes and carried on with analog business-as-usual are kaput or not long for this world, Lordy, Lordy.

5. Proof that, although it’s not the end times, the world has gone a little nuts – lost a sense of perspective, a confidence in its ability to cope, a faith in truth and intellectual rigor, a backbone that can see it shoulder heavy burdens, an optimism that can carry it through the harshest storm. In the promotional blitzkrieg for his recent memoir, former President Barack Obama told The Atlantic, “Compare the degree of brutality and venality and corruption and just sheer folly that you see across human history with how things are now. It’s not even close.” And yet, our 25x8x366 media blasts out an hysterical breaking news stream of brutality and venality and corruption and folly that enflames the passions of ordinary folks who just want to know what’s going on.

As I write, London is shut down because of yesterday’s five COVID-19-related deaths. Five, in a city of nearly 10 million. It’s not a new thought, but imagine if modern media and social media had existed in 1940 – what would it have made of the Blitz? What would Londoners have tweeted about the 40,000 tons of high explosives dropped on them? How would Brits have kept calm and carried on with microphones and cameras shoved in their face, with TV producers egging them on to “emote”? COVID-19 is obviously terrible, but humans have faced much worse before (in fact many humans face much worse today) and not lost our scheisse.

6. Proof that, although it’s not the end times, the world has gone a little nuts (VOLUME II). Snowflake and Palantir and Airbnb and DoorDash, fine companies one and all no doubt, but are they really worth $93 billion on $246 million of revenues (Snowflake) or $74 billion on $4.7 billion (Airbnb)? Nuts, eh? As capitalism fights to renew its legitimacy in the growing onslaught of critiques from all corners (including from the high priests of capitalism), these types of norms to the exception become more and more eyebrow-raising. Maybe it’s the Robin Hood crew, maybe it’s Manhattan fiddling while America burns – whatever it is, it feels like the roulette wheel is spinning so fast it’s going to break loose from the board and go flying through the window of the Casino de Wall Street where the Monte Carlo simulation reigns supreme (for now). (Disclaimer: The author owns stock in Cognizant. Some personal jealousy may be involved in these comments).    

7. The year it became apparent that experiences trump transactions. Through plexiglass and face masks and social distancing and hand sanitizing, we’ve kept on transacting – some of us have even gotten on planes or gone into restaurants. But the thrill is gone.

Yes, we can get a latte from our favorite coffee shop, but it’s a miserable experience with the barista behind a mask and a screen and the seats all piled up in the corner. Yes, we can go into a bookstore, but there’s no fun in browsing the new releases when you’re eyed suspiciously by the staff who think you might be a bandana-clad thief or, worse, a super-spreader. Yes, you can go out on a Sunday afternoon for a little retail therapy and mooch through the local bazaar, but retail therapy has never really been about the buying part – it’s about the experience of being out in the world and the energy and buzz of seeing and being seen. Sure, we can go and buy a suit or a sofa, and covered up in our hazmat suits feel pretty safe in doing so, but frankly, where’s the fun in that?   

8. The year the cubicle died. See our COVID-ized take on this in “From/To: Everything You Wanted to Know about the Future of Work but Were Afraid to Ask.”

9. The year many people realized they borrow money to buy things they don’t need (including, for many, college).

10. A year of disruption – real disruption, not the faux type bandied around by Stageius Pontificatius, in which this widget or this app or this algorithm is going to change the world. No, real disruption, in which the SOP for hotels and airlines and restaurants and interior designers and governments and families and seniors in nursing homes and soccer teams and orchestras and long-distance truck drivers, and Stageius Pontificatius has been thrown into a loop. Fundamentally changed forever.

Some of this disruption will ultimately be for good – perhaps less travel will become the norm, and Gaia will be the better for it. Some, though, will be for bad – the middle-aged owner of that small hotel will have to foreclose his business and be challenged to ever make decent money again; the interior designer who had taken out loans to hire three new people will have to sell her house and downsize back to a student-style apartment; the unpopular government will have to raise taxes to fund the enormous budget deficit created by its furlough plan and, in the ensuing electoral anger, lose its grip on power.

Disruption has become a fashionable word in modern times, sexy even. When 2020 is through though, the appetite for disruption will be greatly reduced. When the virus is behind us, we will want some normalcy, some certainty, some breathing space – we will want things to go back to how they were.

Our old world wasn’t great, we all know that – full of iniquities and injustices and cruelty and indifference. But at least we could hug our dying parents and down a pint in a pub with our mates and sleep in a Heavenly Bed™ once in a while.                                                                        *

2020 has been an annus horribilis, as Elizabeth Windsor might put it, one that we will all want to forget, but never will. As it closes, I wish you well and hope you have a happy holiday and a better new year.  

This blog originally appeared on Ben’s LinkedIn handle and the Cognizant Center for the Future of Work website.

Ben Pring

Ben Pring

Ben Pring leads Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work and is a coauthor of the books What To Do When Machines... Read more