The macro trends that will shape content in 2021

At a recent Leff professional-development session, we shared our views on the business, economic, and social trends that could influence our clients’ work in the coming year and, by extension, their thought-leadership publishing agendas. We thought it could be fruitful to put these ideas out into the world to illuminate the lens with which we view much of our work. Here are the major trends that came up, plus a few questions for company leaders and content creators to consider.

ESG floods the zone

ESG, which stands for environmental, social, and governance, is an umbrella for a host of issues—climate change, workforce conditions, shareholder rights—that are, frankly, nothing new. But one reason you’re seeing a deluge of content around this topic lately is that companies know that the Biden administration is pressing forward on a variety of issues that could fall under ESG, such as raising the minimum wage and calling for a review of the Labor Department’s rule under former President Trump that made it more difficult for 401(k) plans to include ESG investments in retirement plans. As such, some of the big questions to follow this year include:

• Will the notion of corporate purpose become more than words on a company website and, if so, how will firms track and present their results?
• Will investors continue to push companies to pursue ESG, and in what forms?
• How will the debate between shareholder value and stakeholder capitalism evolve?

With ESG very much having a moment, it’s going to be difficult for audiences to differentiate between issues. Companies can elevate their approaches to ESG by being just as mindful about what they include in their ESG plans as what they leave out. They can also use thought leadership to offer contrarian views of ESG, pushing the conversation beyond the basics.

Rejoining Paris Agreement and beyond

For the past four years, many US companies ignored the Trump administration’s dismissal of climate change and continued investing in renewables. That trend got a jolt in late January when, on the first day of the new presidency, the Biden administration announced the United States would rejoin the Paris Agreement. That leads to the question of how oil and gas companies, and hydro-rich countries, will transition to a renewables world and not be left behind. Some of the questions to consider in this evolution include:

• Will solar and wind continue to rise and coal continue to decline?
• Will asset managers continue to pressure companies on their climate change plans and divest fossil-fuel equities?
• Will consumers embrace electric vehicles?

Renewables provide a way for companies to not only combat climate change but also usher in a host of new jobs via reskilling efforts. The big question: will companies be able to meet consumer demand while ensuring manufacturing and supply chains of renewables don’t take up a larger carbon footprint?

Moving DE&I from a mission statement to reality

The murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor last year thrust diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts to the forefront of corporate priorities. Nearly every company across the United States issued statements of support for their Black employees and made commitments to increased diversity measures. But taking those statements and turning them into tangibles is what will set some firms apart from others. Thus, we’re curious:

• Will companies treat DE&I efforts as more than window dressing?
• Will more firms tie executive compensation to DE&I results?
• How will companies actually carry out DE&I initiatives?

While much of the enthusiasm for DE&I efforts has traditionally come from the ground up, setting the tone in the C-suite and leading by example—and, frankly, by using compensation and investment as drivers to ramp up such efforts—will be themes to watch as these efforts unfold.

The continued COVID-19 effect

Grappling with the implications of COVID-19 will continue to consume the attention of executives, policy makers, and researchers alike. But such once-in-a-lifetime events are also occasions when innovation speeds ahead, and they often reshape industries and ways of working for the foreseeable future. With that in mind:

• What impact will the pandemic have on the future of the workforce?
• Which changes observed in consumer behavior are locked in for the long term, and which ones are just a fad?
• Will disruption in supply chains lead to big shifts in sourcing, or is it just talk?
• Will the pandemic force governments and companies to address inequality more aggressively?
• Will the COVID-19 crisis have a long-term impact on educational levels?

The resounding consensus is that companies already have had to rethink what it means to be resilient, and that includes trying to prepare for the next pandemic. But whether some of these trends will stick, or stick in some form of the original, remains to be seen.

Big Tech or Big Brother?

Debate over the proper use of artificial intelligence is growing, from how it’s used in law enforcement and surveillance to its role in combing through resumes. Big Tech is under fire worldwide for a variety of reasons, including privacy invasion and facilitating the expression of extremist views. Thus, we wonder:

• How aggressively will companies pursue the use of AI in their operations?
• Will policy makers feel pressure to regulate the use of AI?
• To what extent, if any, is Big Tech losing the trust of consumers?
• Will countries seek to regulate or break up Big Tech?

Already this year, we’ve seen a proposed law in Australia attempt to make Big Tech compensate media publishers for content. And we saw Big Tech playing a more active role in tamping down extremism when Amazon pulled the plug on Parler after the Capitol insurrection in January. Whether such moves remain reactionary or actually push the industry forward is unclear; what is clear is that regulators and consumers have a very large role to play, if they choose to.

The relevance of demographics

Aging populations in many countries are increasingly getting more attention from executives and policy makers as baby boomers retire, millennials overtake the workforce, and Gen Z continues to join it. These converging shifts bring up the following questions:

• How will companies and governments at all levels fill open roles as more employees retire and the pool of younger workers, in some countries more than others, shrinks?
• Will aging populations and the resulting difficulty in filling jobs encourage more automation?
• How will population trends affect immigration policies?
• How will fewer active, tax-paying workers affect budgets and social benefits?
• How will the aging population affect healthcare?

In some ways, we’ve never seen such a demographic reckoning across so many countries at once, and the machinations of how global economies will grapple with these changes will have a profound impact on the future.

What trends are you watching? Let us know in the comments.

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