This year, mercifully, saw quite a few notable improvements over the last. In 2021, vaccines became widely available, and many of the experiences we had to forgo in 2020, the first year of the pandemic, have begun to return in the second. Unemployment is low, and wages are rising.
That’s not to say we’re out of the woods with the pandemic. In fact, more Americans died of Covid-19 in 2021 than in 2020. And, motivated by widespread misinformation, a sizable portion of the eligible population still has not gotten a vaccine, even as variants like delta and omicron make it hard to feel at ease. Meanwhile, the richest Americans are accumulating even more wealth, and high inflation rates are making everyone’s money worth less.
Of course, many of this year’s trends existed long before the pandemic, though the public health crisis has certainly kicked some into high gear. What follows is a series of charts that attempt to illustrate some of the major trends of 2021. All data is from what was available in mid-December.
Vaccination rates are rising, but they may never be high enough
Currently, about 61 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated, while 72 percent have received at least one dose. That rate is lower than much of the rest of the developed world, trailing China, Canada, and the UK, among others. While vaccination numbers have steadily ticked upward, thanks to a combination of public health campaigns and employer mandates, a good chunk of Americans — 13 percent — say they’ll never get the vaccine.
As such, it’s unlikely the United States will ever reach full herd immunity. Experts have estimated we’d need at least a 90 percent vaccination rate for the disease to eventually disappear, which is a far cry from current levels. Instead, Covid-19 will probably persist even after the most acute aspects of the public health emergency recede.
Work as it was wasn’t working out
There’s nothing like a pandemic to put things in perspective. After enduring the tragedy and trials of the past two years, many Americans are rethinking the importance of work in their lives. They’re reconsidering the types of work they do, how that work is done, and whether they want or need to work at all.
That’s led people to quit their jobs at record rates, and a confluence of factors is leaving millions of open jobs unfilled, especially low-paying or otherwise unattractive work. Of course, as the remnants of government benefits and elevated rates of savings slip away, these options will become less feasible. For now, though, the workers seem to have the upper hand.
Wages are rising because they have to
Worker power is most apparent in rising wages. In November, average hourly earnings for private employees rose to $26.40 for non-managers — up nearly 6 percent from the year before and high above typical levels of growth. Some of the biggest gains could be found in industries with the lowest wages, illustrating how the need for workers in less desirable industries is helping drive up what those workers make. The Conference Board expects wages to grow another 4 percent next year.
Lest the news seem too good, remember that high rates of inflation are cutting into real wage growth. Real average hourly wages were down nearly 2 percent in November, when adjusted for growth in the Consumer Price Index.
The return to the office has been pushed back
The return to the office was slated for this fall. However, after the arrival of the delta and omicron variants, January 2022 or “TBD” have become the new September 2021. Office occupancy among the biggest metro areas is at just 40 percent of what it was pre-pandemic, according to data from office keycard company Kastle Systems.
Some companies are deciding to go fully remote while others, more commonly, are electing for a hybrid model, where some workers go into the office some of the time. What that means for the future of office real estate is uncertain, but what’s clear is that remote work has become a perk to attract and retain workers, factoring in somewhere between higher pay and paid vacation. It’s also a trend that’s likely to stick around, even beyond the pandemic.
Unions are more popular than they’ve been in decades
Despite declining for years to just 11 percent of workers in 2020, some leading indicators suggest union membership could tick up in 2021. Popular approval of unions has grown to its highest level in half a century, according to annual polls from Gallup.
This year, a number of union actions, including 248 strikes as of early December according to Cornell’s Labor Action Tracker, as well as several very high-profile unionizing efforts at Amazon and Starbucks, have kept unions in the news. Additionally, legislation that passed the House and is currently in the Senate could make it much easier for employees to unionize in the future.
Antitrust action isn’t stopping mergers
The government has been taking a tougher antitrust stance in the past few years, increasingly suing companies for anti-competitive behavior and even threatening to break up Big Tech. That, however, hasn’t stopped these companies from trying to acquire other companies. In fiscal year 2021, there were 3,644 large merger transactions recorded — the highest number in two decades — according to preliminary data from the Federal Trade Commission, which requires companies to report potential mergers of a certain size. Even Facebook, which could be forced by the government to divest from previous acquisitions like WhatsApp and Instagram, has been on an acquisition spree.
While some of the jump in transactions can be explained by pandemic-related delays caused in 2020, the sheer number of pre-merger filings in 2021 is still way higher than it’s been in twenty years. Don’t expect this trend to stop anytime soon. Fiscal year 2022, which started in October, already has more than 1,000 merger notices.
It’s getting easier to hate billionaires
The owners of some of the biggest businesses are facing scrutiny as well. About half of Americans have a negative view of billionaires. It certainly doesn’t help the case of billionaires that their wealth swelled 70 percent during a global pandemic that left millions dead and many millions more out of work. The top 1 percent of Americans by wealth control a third of all household wealth in the US, up from about a quarter in the 1990s, according to data from the Federal Reserve. As more wealth gets concentrated in fewer hands, those whose hands aren’t flush are going to get more upset.
Crypto grew up, maybe
Still, others wish they could replicate that wealth, and they helped make 2021 the year cryptocurrency went mainstream. This year, crypto buying and selling platform Coinbase became the first major cryptocurrency company to go public in the United States, giving investors on the regular stock market a chance to invest in a crypto company. Average Americans are also increasingly investing in cryptocurrencies themselves, through mainstream platforms like Square and PayPal as well as Robinhood and Coinbase. More than one in 10 Americans invested in cryptocurrency this year, according to a survey by NORC at the University of Chicago. Similarly, NFTs, digital assets whose ownership can be tracked using blockchain technology, have also surged in popularity.
By and large, crypto investors have seen the price of their assets increase this year — if they’ve been holding since the beginning of the year. The price of bitcoin, for example, was up 68 percent as of mid-December and had been up over 100 percent earlier in the year, according to CoinDesk. Dogecoin, which isn’t worth anywhere near as much, was up nearly 3,700 percent (so high, we didn’t include it in the chart, lest it eclipse everything else). Cryptocurrencies are notoriously volatile, moving on everything from rumors of government regulation to an Elon Musk tweet, so a riches story can turn to rags real quick.
With meme stocks, the joke is on everyone
This year, amateur investors, trading on sites like Robinhood and getting financial advice from Reddit, have taken the stock market by storm. Through coordinated efforts loosely designed to disrupt Wall Street and hedge funds, they brought the price of so-called meme stocks up to levels not seen in years, if ever (though lately they’ve experienced a bit of a meltdown). The price of these nostalgic assets — often of companies that would have been more at home in a 2000s-era mall than a stock portfolio — grew untethered from their underlying financials, as their fate rests in diamond hands.
The supply chain entered popular parlance
Demand for goods is surging, but supply chain issues including clogged ports and a lack of workers are keeping that demand from being met. Supply delays hit record levels in October, according to data from information firm IHS Markit, which compiles an index of supplier delivery times. These supply chain issues have resulted in longer waits, less selection, higher prices, and generally lots of headaches. In turn, the term “supply chain” has transitioned from business jargon to popular parlance.
Inflation is popping
When delivery times rise, so do prices. Inflation was up 6.8 percent in November compared with a year ago, its highest annual rate since the early 1980s. Whether it’s true inflation or just supply chain stuff isn’t clear. What is clear is that Americans will have to spend a lot more than usual on everything from food to fuel to festivities this holiday season.
No news is good news
Since the start of the pandemic, many of us have been trapped at home and glued to the news, but after a tumultuous start of the year, our readership is returning to more normal levels, according to data from Parse.ly, which showed us page views from a sample of its customers like Bloomberg, Wall Street Journal, and Medium. We read insatiably about the pandemic, but also about our former president. Publisher page views reached a record high on November 4, 2020, the day after Election Day; they also spiked during the Capitol riot. Since then, page views are down among the sample but still higher than they used to be.
ESG is the new WTF
One of the biggest corporate buzzwords this year was ESG, which stands for environmental, social, and governance criteria, both for running a company and investing in those companies. Thanks to an increased appetite for this type of investment, ESG and related terms skyrocketed this year on company earnings calls as leaders strove to make employees and investors aware of their commitment to ethical values.
The problem is that the terms are so loose — and loosely governed — as to be meaningless. Some investments marketed as ESG can be far from socially or environmentally righteous, including companies that profit from everything from private prisons to fossil fuels. Socially responsible governance and investing is certainly positive, but it requires more than following the latest marketing to achieve.
Event attendance is up but mostly not back to normal
Thanks to widespread vaccinations, people started to attend events in person again this year. Activities that were completely off-limits in the first year of the pandemic are becoming popular again in the second. Festival attendance in the US has surpassed pre-pandemic levels in the second half of 2021, according to data from demand forecast company PredictHQ, partly because outdoor events are safer than indoor ones. Most other types of events, however, are still recovering.
It’s harder than ever to know what’s in or out, but that won’t stop us from trying
Thanks to the ephemerality of social media, trends are going in and out of fashion faster than ever. What was all the rage one moment can be forgotten by our collective memory the next (hi, TikTok pasta!). Add in a global pandemic putting the state of the world and everything in it in flux, and it can be very difficult to make heads or tails of popular consumption.
That’s why it’s always fun to take a look at Google Trends to try and guess what will be hot next and what’s already been left behind. We took a closer look thanks to the financial platform Sentieo, which stacks Google trends by year to see how this year’s trends compared to last year’s. But don’t bother trying to figure out what jeans or hair parts are cool — because that’s personal to you.