Nine Culture Shift Predictions for 2021

Emilie Hitch

Onward is an exclusive content series authored by broadhead’s thought leaders, highlighting their unique perspectives on adapting, adjusting and pushing forward.

Written by Emilie Hitch | VP, Applied Anthropologist

With the promising news of several vaccines announced in the last week, dare we start to look ahead toward a post-pandemic world? While that reality may still be several months away, right now we are still living a story about a global rite of passage. A story about the interconnectedness of all our human systems — the fissures they’ve been bearing, the rust they’ve been gathering, and their dependence upon each other that is just now becoming more visible. This story centers around major shifts in culture, many of whose origins lay before COVID-19 made the leap to humankind; small ideas of change, small groups of people, growing perspectives scattered throughout our societies, which are now bubbling up to generate seismic shifts in how people relate to each other and the world around them.

Our global rite of passage is accelerating these shifts as we move from one culture state to another – with a messy, grey, “betwixt and between” space in the middle which anthropologists refer to as the liminal phase. We’re in it now. As we examine all the indicators of change-in-motion around us, we can only guess at what a new culture state will be like.

Predictions for a new culture state:

  • Polarized politics lead to an increasingly segmented society. World issues are not “becoming politicized” — they are falling in line with already polarized sources of information. Trust is fragmented, fragile and eroded — so we turn inward to our own criteria for evaluation. More and more, the way Americans approach party politics will become the way they approach everything.  
  • Solutions take sacrifices. I can’t shake the concept that our current state of divisiveness makes it impossible to act on the behalf of everyone. We know inherently that transitions bring change. The question is, “How much am I willing to lose versus let other people lose?” We all fear loss. Major changes will take true empathy as people grieve losses in generational, or even individual, ways of life.
  • The modern workforce becomes a war for talent. As each job matters more, the competition to fill it with the best and brightest will intensify. Creative thinkers, innovators, pivoters, strategists and go-getters will win — and companies who have gone remote will be able to recruit globally. Our ideas of “What is talent?” will shift outside the box.
  • Systems are redesigned for resilience and preparedness. As people demand “better” — in not just words, but actions — from government, brands and corporations, systems will be redesigned for stability and responsiveness. Major retail chains and investors will find and share sustainability and inclusion stories, increasing consumer awareness.
  • Food access is reimagined. Innovations in how we shop for, bring home, cook and consume our food will continue to increase.  Restaurant and grocery continue to develop new systems for take-out and delivery, and food safety products as well as protocols and branding elements for eating in. Meal boxes and subscriptions continue to diversify their ingredients (keto, sustainably sourced) and delivery styles (prepared, frozen, DIY).
  • Tech acceleration puts transparency and traceability in the hands of consumers. The public gets savvy about sourcing — from tracing ingredients to tracking carbon. We’re interested in both the ingredients of what we eat AND ingredients of what our food eats. We want to know how and where everything is grown and processed — by whom and how they are treated (both animals and people).
  • The definition of “health” is expanding from our body to our minds, communities and planet. We may never think about “germs” the same way again. Sustainability, food safety, social movements and climate impact are becoming part of a healthy lifestyle. We’ve gone from fresh to frozen foods — and back again. The gender gap has lost decades of contraction…widening to the size of a black hole — and so have mental health issues. Americans, in particular, are the unhappiest they’ve been in a generation.
  • From protest to policy. We will begin to identify and address the root causes of our pressing social issues, not just react to their symptoms. People don’t experience climate change in parts-per-million, but in houses burned down and flooded, in allergies and asthma…and people don’t experience racism in “systems,” but in riots, police brutality, everyday language and other microaggressions. We must learn to communicate policies (like the Green New Deal, or policing contracts) in the ways they actually impact people’s lives.
  • An era of acceleration. While in many ways, people feel as though life is on pause, in others, we’ve hit warp speed. The pressure that a pandemic forces on daily life — spending 24 hours a day for months on end under restrictions — can intensify relationships and self-reflection, force us to reexamine life choices to date and change our orientation to available paths through the world.  While we double down on identity, values and navigate the tech explosion in transparency and traceability putting information at our fingertips (5G!), small trends become major movements.

COVID-19 has given rise to an age of the great evaluators, in which traceability is the new clean label, carbon neutral is the new sustainability and transparency on social movements is the new CSR. In this new space, consumers know who they are and what they want, and will scrutinize every detail to make sure any sacrifices they make — from lifestyle to price — fits how they redefine “better” for themselves, their family and the world.

To win with the great evaluators, companies will define what “better” means for them. Those who succeed in finding a place where purchase meets purpose will know where they stand, be transparent about their culture and actions, innovate to meet the evolving needs of society, and use technological advances in communications and traceability to their full potential. Now is the time to share the stories which differentiate brands and leaders in not just what they believe — but how they act on it. The great evaluators will seek out those who solve real problems and deliver what it means to be “better.”

Our team at broadhead has developed a website that captures our viewpoint regarding how the world has shifted – and will continue shifting even after this pandemic era ebbs away. Check out or drop us a line at [email protected] – we’d love to hear your thoughts, too!