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2021 Reminded Us about These Four Traits of the Modern World

December 23, 2021

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As a new year approaches, it’s traditionally a time to look back and remember key milestones of the past year. There is certainly a lot that can, and no doubt will, be said about 2021. I’d like to focus on four interrelated characteristics of the modern world that were brought into a brighter spotlight this year.

First, we experienced the fragility of key systems that underpin our society and impact our daily lives.

Our health care system, for example, has been tested like never before. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to stress the capacity of our hospitals, as well as the well-being of our health care professionals. In some hard-hit areas, medical centers had to limit non-essential care and elective procedures. This, combined with the number of people who put off getting regular checkups and care, and those suffering the physical and mental effects of social isolation, could contribute to long-term health impacts that we still don’t fully understand. We need to strengthen our health care system and support our health care workers to be sure they remain up to the task.

We also witnessed the fragile nature of key business systems and global supply chains – from labor shortages and the Great Resignation, to inflation and cyber attacks on digital systems that fuel today’s commerce. The rapid pace of inflation – only partially offset by record wage gains – has led the Federal Reserve to accelerate its plans for lifting interest rates and winding down securities purchases.

Finally, the fragility of our political system manifested itself in the divisiveness and partisanship of our discourse, attacks on voting rights, and growing distrust in our national institutions and even our election process. Open debate on issues is a cornerstone of democracy, but when lies overtake truth, when dialogue turns disrespectful and when disagreements turn violent, our democracy suffers. As a student of history and the up and down cycles of the great American experiment, I remain optimistic about the nation’s ability to move behind this troubling situation. But democracy cannot be taken for granted; it must be understood, respected, nurtured and protected by its leaders and its citizens.

Second, our global interconnectedness means that none of us is safe until all are safe. Isolationism is not a viable option in today’s highly interconnected world. The global marketplace offers more opportunities for our businesses to sell their goods, and it gives consumers and businesses more options for products and services. On the other hand, when global transport is easy and global communication is instantaneous, things can span the world in unbelievable speed; unfortunately, that includes lies, misinformation and hate, as well as viruses such as COVID-19. The rapid spread of new variants has made it clear that it will take a coordinated, cooperative global effort to tame the pandemic. As long as there are vulnerable populations anywhere in the world, it will remain difficult to contain the spread and achieve a full return to normalcy.

The challenges discussed above are balanced against two positive attributes we witnessed in 2021, which should give us hope for the future.

First, humans possess incredible powers of creativity to tackle challenges. This spirit of innovation was demonstrated most dramatically and impactfully in major breakthroughs in vaccine development. Leveraging research and technologies under development for many years, a massive effort by scientists, medical professionals, government agencies and private enterprise developed and disseminated highly effective vaccines in record time – without jettisoning science or safety. Researchers are already studying how one of the core technologies, mRNA, might be used to combat other infectious diseases and even treat cancer.

Finally, people have demonstrated incredible perseverance, a trait that is essential to achieving resilience in challenging times. We are all human, so we are going to face setbacks and make mistakes from time to time. The key is to keep moving forward toward our goals. Americans are inherently resilient, and when we approach our lives with resilience and determination, we can overcome any hurdle.

The road to full economic recovery and a sense of normalcy will take time. Our experience in 2021 was another reminder that we must make a collective effort to both invest in the systems that we rely on in our daily lives and to nurture and protect the core tenets of our precious democracy. However, the progress that’s already been made in developing innovative medical solutions to the pandemic and in reopening our economy reaffirms my belief that our country will emerge strong.

Here’s to a happy, healthy and prosperous 2022!

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