It has been nearly three years since the start of the pandemic, and a lot has changed. Some parts of the world are returning to normal, as people go to live events and restaurants, while other things, like going back to the office, feel stuck in time. Internationally, a war is raging, and in the US, politics have been as contentious as ever.
The pandemic seems to have irreversibly changed Americans’ relationship with work. They’re continuing to quit their jobs in search of greener pastures, even as the economy sours. Meanwhile, the tech stocks that flourished when Americans were staying home and were very online have come back down to earth — as has their more speculative cousin, crypto. People are getting priced out of homeownership, thanks to high prices and growing interest rates. But they’re getting priced into electric vehicle ownership as some EV prices decline. That should be good news for Telsa, but it isn’t. The company is suffering from growing competition and its CEO’s divided attention at Twitter.
To try and make sense of all the changes we’ve seen this past year, we’ve put together a series of charts that tackle some of the year’s biggest trends. It’s not exhaustive, but we hope it helps you make sense of another very weird year.
What has returned and what hasn’t
One way to measure progress since the pandemic upended the world in 2020 is to look at what has returned and what hasn’t. From the looks of it, many things have come back. US hotel occupancy at the end of November was at the same level it was in 2019, as was attendance at sporting events. People are once again eating at restaurants and flying on planes. They’re also going to concerts, though at 88 percent, attendance is still shy of 2019 levels.
The holdout here is offices, whose occupancy is at less than half what it was pre-pandemic. The remote work revolution taught many office workers — and their employers — that office space wasn’t essential to work. And that lesson might stick. Future of work experts, like Stanford’s Nick Bloom, expect current levels to hold, even after the pandemic becomes a distant memory.
Flu season is worse than ever
The last week of November saw more positive flu test results than any week on record, which goes back to 1997. The flu has also spread earlier and more quickly than it has in previous years. Part of the rise has to do with more people getting tested, but that’s not all of it. Hospitalization rates are four times as high as they typically are at this time of year.
One main reason for this bonkers flu season is that the population has low levels of flu antibodies, since many Americans didn’t get the flu in the past two years, as preventive measures like masks and quarantining kept people from getting sick. Now, however, that means that lots of people are getting sick all at once, so it’s probably time to dust off those measures, this time to flatten the curve for the flu.
People are still getting abortions
With its Dobbs v. Jackson decision in June, the Supreme Court overturned the half-century-old Roe v. Wade and effectively made abortion illegal in nearly half of US states. New data from the Society of Family Planning shows that the number of clinician-provided abortions in those states has plummeted. (It’s important to remember that data wouldn’t include self-managed abortions, where women take abortion pills at home.)
What’s perhaps more interesting is the notable jumps in abortion in states surrounding those where abortion is illegal, suggesting that women are traveling to get medical care. In Kansas, the number of abortions rose 36 percent from April to August; abortion became illegal in neighboring Oklahoma during the same time. North Carolina, which is surrounded by the less abortion-friendly South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee, saw a 37 percent jump.
Those jumps show up in national numbers. Despite declining by 100 percent in a number of states, the number of recorded abortions in the US only declined a modest 6 percent nationwide, from 85,020 in April to 79,620 abortions in August 2022. Of course, traveling to another state can be prohibitively expensive for many, meaning that poorer people will have a harder time terminating pregnancies in the states with strict abortion laws.
Homes are increasingly unaffordable
On an annual basis, existing single-family home prices went up just 8 percent through September this year according to data from S&P Dow Jones Indices. That represents a welcome reprieve from the breakneck 19 percent growth last year. On a monthly basis, prices have actually come down for three consecutive months.
That doesn’t mean it’s a good time to buy a house. Prices are still very high, and it’s not clear if and when they’ll come down in a meaningful way. Meanwhile, rising interest rates have made buying a home even more expensive. Homeownership affordability is currently the worst on record, with annual payments for a median home representing 46.3 percent of the median income, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta’s Home Ownership Affordability Monitor. The threshold is considered to be 30 percent of income, after which housing is considered unaffordable.
The Great Resignation continued
The Great Resignation is real, with empirical evidence showing that it’s more than just a fun catchphrase. It’s also still happening. Even as high interest rates, high-profile layoffs, and a potential recession batter the job market, Americans have continued to quit their jobs at elevated rates.
Part of that has to do with the still-tight job market, which is enabling these workers to find better opportunities. In October, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found there were an impressive 10.3 million job openings in the US, or 6.3 percent of employment. Meanwhile, the rate of layoffs was well below its historic rate, as employers chose to make cuts elsewhere. Perhaps there’s been a cultural shift as well, as the pandemic helped put work — once a cornerstone of American identity — into perspective.
Wages are going up, but inflation is ruining it
In March, the Federal Reserve raised interest rates for the first time since 2018 — and has done so several more times since, with more to come. The hope is that if money is more expensive to borrow, people will spend less of it, and inflation, which was at a 40-year high, will subside. While down from its peak of 9 percent in June, inflation is still pretty high. Prices for all goods were up 7.7 percent on average nationally in October, compared with a year earlier.
Part of the issue is that the interest rate hikes haven’t been enough to stunt the job market, which keeps adding jobs and raising wages. However, thanks to inflation, those higher wages don’t mean as much as they used to. While actual wages are up about 5 percent year over year, workers end up having less buying power when you factor in inflation.
Remote work continues to work
A full 79 percent of Americans who can work from home are doing so, either in a hybrid or fully remote setting, according to Gallup. Considering some 56 percent of full-time workers, or more than 70 million Americans, are in remote-capable jobs, that has big impacts on the future of work.
For most office workers, that means they’ll work from home some of the time while spending some of the time in the office. About 30 percent of all paid full work days in the US were spent working from home in November, according to WFH Research — a rate they expect to see continue after the pandemic. One reason is that even though many employers would like their workers to return, they’re up against employee desires in a tight labor market and a potential recession, in which they may have to cut back on office space to save money.
A good year for unions
This year, more than 1,000 unions have won their elections — the most since 2015 and potentially longer, according to data from Bloomberg Law. These numbers only track activity through the beginning of December and are preliminary, meaning that they will likely be revised upward. The rate at which unions won their elections was also very high at 75 percent, up from about 53 percent in 2000, meaning unions that hold elections are increasingly more likely to win them.
Unions are also popping up in industries previously thought ununionizable, like retail. Retail name brands like Apple, Starbucks, Amazon, Trader Joe’s, and REI all saw successful union drives this year, despite an incredibly difficult unionization process in the US. The number of strikes so far this year was up nearly 50 percent from last year, according to data from Cornell’s ILR Labor Action Tracker. Some 15,000 nurses in Minnesota went on strike in September to get better staffing and patient care. Congress narrowly avoided a crippling rail strike last week, as rail workers fought for paid sick days.
This is all happening as American approval of unions is at its highest level since the 1960s. While this might not be enough to counter the decades-long decline in union membership, it certainly can’t hurt.
Twitter is Tesla’s albatross
Tesla is a notoriously volatile stock, known to swing wildly from one day to the next. This year, however, it has mostly headed south. Tesla’s share price is down more than 50 percent from the start of the year, while the S&P 500 is down just 17 percent.
A number of issues have plagued the electric carmaker, from a tightening economy to increased competition, but Elon Musk’s decision to buy Twitter has made matters worse. Musk, who already split his time as CEO of both Tesla and SpaceX, decided to buy Twitter back in April and has since spent long hours trying — and seemingly failing — to right the social media company. Meanwhile, Musk’s controversial decisions to do things like bring back right-wing extremists, including former President Donald Trump, are causing consumers and investors to sour on him and, by extension, Tesla.
Electric vehicles go mainstream
This was a big year for electric vehicles, thanks to high gas prices, more affordable models, and huge government investment, including a revamped tax credit. President Joe Biden has said he wants half of the new cars sold in the US to be electric by 2030, and that’s a possibility. EVs made up nearly 6 percent of all new vehicle registrations in the third quarter, even as supply chain issues meant that many Americans were necessarily able to purchase the electric vehicles they wanted. While still a minority of total auto sales, that’s three times the rate it was at just two years ago, and a big step toward moving Americans away from dependence on fossil fuels.
Growth has been stronger on a global level, with plug-in electric vehicles representing 16 percent of vehicles sold in October. Interestingly, as electric vehicles become more mainstream, the most well-known EV brand, Tesla, is losing its dominance. As companies like Ford and GM enter the market, Tesla’s share of new electric vehicle registrations dropped from 71 percent at the start of the year to 61 percent in the third quarter of 2022, according to data from S&P Global Mobility. S&P has forecast that Tesla’s market share will decline to less than 20 percent by 2025.
Supply chain issues eased but aren’t over
Last year, supply chain issues caused delays in getting everything from furniture to food. Things have eased up quite a bit this year, thanks in part to slowing demand, which caused the cost of goods and delivery, along with the time it takes to ship them, to fall.
To combat international supply chain problems, the Biden administration has made a concerted effort to move more manufacturing to the US and to crack down on high shipping industry prices, but such efforts will take a long time and the supply chain is by no means fixed. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Global Supply Chain Pressure Index ticked back up in October and November, due to slow delivery times in China.
Tech market cap collapse
This was the year that Big Tech’s seemingly inexorable growth finally slowed. As tech companies have matured, there just isn’t as much room for rapid growth — and they don’t have anything wildly profitable on the horizon. So while revenue is still growing for most of the major companies, it’s not growing as fast as it used to.
Wall Street has taken notice, and stock prices at major tech companies have plummeted. Apple, Meta, Amazon, Alphabet, and Microsoft combined have lost more than $3 trillion in market cap this year. That has meant hiring freezes and even mass layoffs, which were once unheard of in Silicon Valley. It has also meant that these companies have had to cut down on some of their more innovative projects. Amazon is gutting Alexa. Apple has tapped the brakes on its self-driving car project. Meta is scaling back its experimental products division and Portal to make way for the metaverse.
Of course, these companies aren’t going anywhere. They just might not be as indestructible as they used to be.
Crypto freezes over
While 2021 was a boom year for cryptocurrencies and affiliated technologies like NFTs and Web3, 2022 was a bust. And things appear to be going from bad to worse. What was dubbed a “crypto winter” in the first half of the year became a crypto ice age in the second half.
Thanks to impressively irresponsible financial skullduggery by its boy genius leader Sam Bankman-Fried, the spectacular fall of crypto exchange FTX caused much of the rest of the crypto industry to tumble. As of early December, the largest cryptocurrencies by market cap were down more than 50 percent. Whether this spells the end of crypto or just another drop in its long-chaotic ride remains to be seen.
The US continues to spend money fighting the war in Ukraine
The war in Ukraine, which began in February when Russia invaded its neighbor, is raging on. Ukrainians are enduring missile strikes, blackouts, and death. It has also become a source of growing international tensions, as Europe and the US have ratcheted up sanctions against Russia.
Perhaps the most direct way to measure US involvement is its military aid. Since the start of the war, the US has given Ukraine more than $18 billion in security assistance, according to an announcement by the Department of Defense in early November. That amount has doubled since Vox last wrote about it in May. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin recently said the war in Ukraine could be a “long process,” so we might see that aid rise even more.