From voting to vaccines and from protests to pets, a look at 2020’s biggest trends.
2020 was such a terrible, bad, no-good year that even complaining about it got old. A pandemic knocked the world to its knees, killing 1.6 million people so far and leaving untold suffering in its wake. Social distancing kept us inside, away from our friends and loved ones. Businesses shut their doors. Economic inequality grew.
Still, not everything was bad.
It’s been a very good year for bread, hand sanitizer, and pets. Also, greenhouse gas emissions declined in the United States. Earlier in the pandemic — back when people still made jokes — we joked that nature was healing itself.
Here’s a roundup of some of the most important 2020 trends, in charts. Twenty of them!
1) The coronavirus continues to wreak havoc on the US
It’s been nearly a year since the first confirmed coronavirus case hit the US. Now, more than 16 million Americans, or nearly 5 percent of the country’s population, have had the virus, and about 300,000 have died, more than any other country in the world by far. The response to the virus — which first tore through large cities, then devastated rural areas, and is now spreading everywhere — was disjointed and inconsistent, and marred by an administration that didn’t take it seriously. Now the United States is averaging more than 200,000 new cases each day, or more than 10 times the number of daily cases this spring. India, a much more populous country, registers around 30,000 per day. China, where the virus first originated, has about 15.
2) Efforts to flatten the curve worked — for a while
The virus has been a public health nightmare, with hospital emergency rooms inundated with sick patients and health care workers struggling to get personal protective equipment to keep themselves and their patients safe. An early effort to “flatten the curve” went viral and helped prevent the medical system from being overwhelmed. Communicated as a chart, the idea of flattening the curve encouraged people and governments to adopt protective measures like self-isolation and closing schools and businesses to keep the virus from spreading too quickly.
But the US never went further to fully suppress the virus, leaving new daily Covid-19 cases at a dangerous plateau in the spring, with a surge in the summer. As many states have reopened businesses, the new surge of cases this fall and winter is threatening once again to overwhelm the health care system if the US doesn’t take serious precautions.
3) A coronavirus vaccine was developed in record time
From conception to distribution in less than a year, the development of the coronavirus vaccine has been the fastest in history. Until now, the fastest vaccine development had been the mumps vaccine, which took four years. (For comparison, more than three decades after the first vaccine trials began, there’s still no AIDS vaccine.) Typically, vaccine development takes at least a decade, and that’s sometimes only after the disease has been spreading for millennia.
4) Voter turnout was the highest in more than a century
Nearly 160 million Americans voted in the 2020 presidential election, or about 67 percent of the voting-eligible population, according to data from United States Elections Project. While the pandemic had the potential to keep people from voting, mail-in and extended in-person voting options enabled more of the population to vote than had in more than 100 years. High voter turnout rates were due to several factors, including an election that people perceived as very important, a highly partisan race in which few people claimed to be undecided, and omnipresent “get out the vote” messaging.
5) A year of protest
Much of the spring and summer was dominated by Black Lives Matter and anti-racism protests, in response to widespread police violence against Black Americans. These protests took place in more locations and over more days than 2017’s Women’s March and 2018’s gun violence protests. They were also highly attended, with an estimated 15 million to 26 million Americans saying they joined these protests in June alone. Anti-racism protests continued into July, so real turnout could have been higher. (Turnout for the civil rights protests of the 1960s were in the hundreds of thousands, for comparison.) This year’s anti-racism protests were “bigger, broader, and more enduring” than any other on record, according to Erica Chenoweth, a Harvard Kennedy School professor who co-directs the Crowd Counting Consortium.
6) Political polarization got worse
The protests and high voter turnout happened amid increased polarization — the kind that means one party not only disagrees with the other’s politics but also hates them as individuals. Spurred on by systemic inequality, vociferous politicians, and social media that’s geared toward increasing user engagement, people are more likely to feel coldness toward the opposing party than warmth toward their own more than at any time in the past 40 years. A so-called political stress indicator, which incorporates measures of wage stagnation, distrust in government, and inequality, has been on the rise in a way that’s similar to what the country saw before the Civil War.
7) Income inequality got worse
The pandemic exacerbated long-term trends toward inequality, with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. These trends were on display in numerous ways. For example, the rich could ride out the pandemic in the luxury of their homes while the poor were forced to work jobs that put them at greater risk of catching the disease. And as Washington Post data reporter Christopher Ingraham pointed out, while the Dow Jones Industrial Average rebounded to pre-pandemic highs, enriching shareholders in America’s biggest companies, searches for local food banks or food pantries also grew.
8) Wages didn’t rise as swiftly as corporate profits
The pandemic made many retail employees into essential workers, whose jobs at grocery stores and pharmacies put them at risk of contracting the virus. But while the companies they worked for made an enormous amount of money, these employees did not, according to a study by the Brookings Institution. The analysis of 13 essential retail companies found that they made an extra $17 billion — 39 percent more — in 2020 compared to the year before. Meanwhile, retail workers only saw their wages rise by about $1 per hour, an increase of just 10 percent.
9) Unemployment rates were the highest since the Great Depression
Many Americans went through the pandemic without work at all. In April, unemployment rates in the US neared 15 percent — the highest since the Great Depression, when a quarter of the working population didn’t have a job. The unemployment rate dropped to 6.7 percent in November, which is more typical of a normal recession.
10) Working from home became a reality
People have been talking about the promise of working from home for as long as there’s been an internet, and the practice has been slowly ticking up for years. However, stay-at-home orders made remote work a reality for a much wider swath of the population. Estimates vary, but this summer, more than half of the North American workforce worked predominantly from home, according to a survey across industries by IDC. After the pandemic, the firm expects working from home to be double its pre-pandemic rates. The numbers may be higher when you look at those who might work from home some of the time in a hybrid work model, which is expected to dominate office work going forward.
11) Pets win
Humans’ new work-from-home situation was good news for pets. Not only did being home mean more time for walks, it also meant many people who didn’t previously have time for pets suddenly were flocking to shelters to find a quarantine companion. In 2020, shelter animal adoption rates — the share of dogs and cats adopted relative to those turned in to the shelter — were consistently higher than in 2019, according to data from nonprofit Shelter Animals Count. The adoption rate reached 95 percent in March. The number of animals adopted actually declined, but fewer were taken to shelters in the first place.
“We’ve seen an incredibly compassionate response from people willing to open their homes to foster and adopt vulnerable shelter animals during this period of uncertainty,” ASPCA president and CEO Matt Bershadker told Recode. “This unprecedented response from communities across the country to support their local shelters reflects widespread appreciation of the invaluable role pets play in our lives.”
12) People became more self-sufficient
Early in the pandemic, Americans had to contend with the twin forces of boredom and scarcity. We were isolated at home and we didn’t have the same access to commerce that we usually did, so we turned to Google to entertain ourselves and make what we couldn’t buy. The top trending searches on Google for “how to make” this year paint a pretty accurate vignette of what life was like for many Americans during the pandemic. We were making elaborate and trendy foods, trying to figure out the best background for video calls, and learning how to make masks that were newly mandatory and in short supply. One fun trend not included here was the top trending beauty search — how to cut hair at home — which led to lots of, um, stylish coronacuts.
13) Big Tech got even bigger, even as the rest of the economy flailed
A long-awaited report from House Democrats released in October found that Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook all engaged in anti-competitive behavior. The report was just the beginning of upcoming antitrust regulatory proceedings against Big Tech companies, and soon thereafter, the government filed a lawsuit against Google and then Facebook. Still, the prospect of further regulating or breaking up Big Tech has done little to blunt their economic prospects.
While many industries were devastated by the fallout from the coronavirus, the biggest tech companies raked in enormous profits, and their stock prices hit record highs. As of early December, Amazon’s and Apple’s stocks were up nearly 70 percent since the beginning of the year, while Google’s and Facebook’s stocks were up more than 30 percent — much higher than the S&P 500 index, which is made up of the 500 biggest US companies and only went up around 13 percent.
14) It was a very good year for Amazon
Amazon has had an especially good year as online shopping became a safer retail option and, in some cases, the only one available. In the third quarter, Amazon raked in a record $6.3 billion in profit, three times what it made just a year before.
15) E-commerce became commerce
Amazon, of course, is the poster child for e-commerce, which it leads by a wide margin in the US. Census Bureau sales data illustrates how the already fast-growing e-commerce segment saw giant gains, increasing nearly 40 percent in Q3 compared to a year earlier. Online shopping made up 14 percent of all retail sales in the US last quarter as in-store retail flagged. As governments across the country shut down or restrict nonessential retail for a second time this winter, these trends could be exacerbated.
16) Amazon is still terrifying the competition (and everyone else)
Other companies are taking note of these e-commerce trends and how they benefit Amazon. Again this year, a growing number of public companies — 227 so far — have mentioned Amazon in the “risk factors” section of their annual 10-K financial filings, where companies state the most significant risks to their business, according to information from the financial data platform Sentieo.
17) We all streamed together
Spending more time at home during the pandemic meant streaming a lot more video. At one point, Netflix downgraded its streaming quality in Europe so it didn’t break the internet. Time spent watching Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube grew tremendously during the early part of the pandemic, according to data from the research firm MoffettNathanson, as movie theaters closed and streaming platforms became the only places to watch movies — some of which skipped theaters entirely.
18) The coronavirus economy’s winners and losers
The pandemic’s effect on the economy varied by industry. Airlines, unsurprisingly, did poorly as consumers followed stay-at-home orders and didn’t travel. On the other hand, the air freight and logistics industry, which includes package delivery, saw its stock rise 51 percent this year. Software companies like Zoom also performed well, as Americans increasingly relied on software to do just about everything. The stock performance for select industries through early December illustrates that while the stock market has largely recovered its losses from the pandemic, that recovery is uneven.
19) Greenhouse gas emissions went down unintentionally
Despite America’s best attempts to the contrary, US greenhouse gas emissions went down drastically this year, to their lowest level since the 1980s, according to data from BloombergNEF. The 9 percent drop was the biggest on record. The Trump administration has been disastrous for the environment, pulling the US out of the Paris accord, an agreement meant to stem the threats of climate change, and reversing more than 100 environmental rules. But the pandemic was stronger. Emissions from transportation dropped the most, due to Americans being stuck at home. BloombergNEF expects emissions to climb again next year.
20) Hurricane and fire seasons set records
Global warming is making hurricanes more powerful and destructive. In 2020, there were also more of them. 2020’s hurricane season now holds the notorious record for most named storms, with 30 of them, including 13 hurricanes and 17 tropical storms. Twelve made landfall in the US. The previous record had been 28 named storms in 2005. Meanwhile, fires devastated the West Coast. The August Complex Fire became the largest in California history, burning more than a million acres this summer.
Oh, and if 2020 wasn’t wild enough: Aliens reportedly exist and the government knows about it. The former head of space security at Israel’s Defense Ministry wrote in his new book that a “galactic federation” has been hanging out with astronauts in an underground base on Mars. Perhaps most surprisingly, Trump has not tweeted about this.