After a year like 2020, we are all looking forward to turning the calendar to Jan. 1, 2021. But the new year has more to offer than vaccines and a hope that life returns to normal. Here are a few big changes and surprising trends that we (and a panel of experts) predict are also coming our way.

SLOW DATING 

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The pandemic has made casual hookups far too risky for most singles, but that doesn’t mean they’re giving up on love. A recent Future of Dating survey from dating app OkCupid found that 84 percent of their users think an emotional connection should come before a physical one. “We’re seeing a new stage emerge in the courtship process,” said Helen Fisher, a senior research fellow at The Kinsey Institute. Suitors are taking longer before initiating physical intimacy, taking the time to get to know each other first, either on Zoom or in other virtual realms. “I think we’re going to see fewer first dates in 2021,” Fisher says. “But those first dates are going to be much more meaningful.”

GOING CONTACTLESS 

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A recent consumer survey found that 87 percent of shoppers would rather visit stores with touchless self-checkout options, and the rise of “tap and go” bank cards will answer that demand in 2021. Meanwhile, new mobile apps will even open the (literal) doors of the workplace for you, by connecting with smart elevators that recognize which floor you’re heading to, said Larry Gadea, CEO and founder of workplace technology company Envoy. “We’ve seen companies of all types … quickly roll out touchless sign-in technology to their thousands of employees,” Gadea said.

3D-PRINTED HOUSES 

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The median cost for a US home in 2020 is around $320,000. But for a 3D-printed house — constructed via robotics and light stone material, often in less than 24 hours — the cost ranges from $115,000 to as little as $4,000. Oakland, Calif.-based startup Mighty Buildings has 3D-printed around nine homes since 2017, but in 2021 they expect to build “at least 100 units, and likely many more,” said co-founder and Chief Sustainability Officer Sam Ruben. “There’s a big increase in multi-generational living. People want cheaper homes so they can live near each other and still have their independence,” Ruben said. Icon, an Austin, Texas-based construction tech company, finished construction building this year on an entire community of 3D homes in Tabasco, Mexico — 50 houses in all — which were donated to homeless families in the area free of charge. “There is a severe housing shortage in this country,” said Icon’s VP of Operations Dmitri Julius. “A recent Freddie Mac study shows an estimated 2.5 million additional housing units will be needed in the US to make up this shortage.

AI IN THE CLASSROOM 

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Robot teachers? Human educators won’t be completely eliminated in 2021, but they’ll definitely be sharing the workload with AI assistants. A 2018 study by tech research company Technavio predicted a nearly 48 percent growth for AI tools in education over the next three years, and a recent McKinsey & Company report suggested that up to 40 percent of teacher tasks like grading and lesson planning could soon be outsourced to technology. “There will be no basic math instructor in ten years,” said Jennifer Jones, founder and CEO of Green Ivy Schools, a NYC-based private school network. “That seems cold, but it’s not — it’s better for all of us if [human] teachers are teaching something other than basic math.”

GOOD-FOR-YOU BOOZE 

Millennials want a good buzz, as long as it comes with some health benefits, whether it’s hard kombucha — which Whole Foods included as one of its Top 10 Food Trends of 2021 — or Impression, a newly launched boutique gin made with vitamin C and “collagen-rich botanicals.” Alcohol filled with live probiotic cultures or other health benefits will find a loyal following in 2021, said Ariane Resnick, author of “The Thinking Girl’s Guide to Drinking.” “Instead of spending $6 for each crappy beer at a bar, [we’re spending] our drinking dollars on higher quality choices.” Meanwhile, some studies suggest that 32 percent of booze enthusiasts are also looking for low-alcohol alternatives.

PANDEMIC FASHION 

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From crinoline skirts designed to keep people at least six feet away to solar-powered full-body bubble shields (below left), the pandemic is inspiring some of the biggest (and weirdest) fashion trends of next year. Earlier this year, London clothing brand Vollebak introduced the Full Metal Jacket (priced at $1,095), constructed from 65 percent copper thread that’s resistant to bacteria and viruses. The jacket was years in the making and wasn’t a direct response to COVID-19, said Steve Tidball, the company’s CEO and co-founder. “But the timing proved to be lucrative,” he said, adding that Vollebak’s business has surged by 100 percent since the beginning of the year. Virus-resistant fashion “is where the world is heading,” he said.

FAMILY GAMING 

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Even before the pandemic drove us all inside, adults were rediscovering the joy of video games. Research firm Mintel found that 71 percent of adults were regularly playing video games in 2019, up from 59 percent just a year earlier, and a shocking 62 percent of gamers aged between 10 and 17 said they actually like playing games with their parents. “Millennials are starting to have children, and they’re the first generation to have grown up with video-game consoles in the majority of households,” says John Poelking, a gaming analyst at Mintel, who predicts that video games will replace the old tradition of families watching TV together. “Video games are going to become an essential part of how generations bond in 2021 and beyond.”

TRAINS OVER PLANES 

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According to a GlobalData consumer survey from October, rail travel is likely to beat out flying and car trips in 2021, and not just because of the pandemic. Forty-eight percent of respondents want to reduce their environmental footprint in the coming year. Flygskam — Swedish for “flight-shaming” — has already become an environmental movement across much of Europe, and the US is poised to follow that trend. To make train travel more enticing, Amtrak plans to unveil a new fleet of high-speed, low-carbon trains sometime in 2021, which can reach speeds of up to 160 miles an hour while using 20 percent less energy. “We’ve reduced our greenhouse gas emissions by 22 percent, which is equivalent to removing roughly 51,251 passenger vehicles from the road,” said Jason Abrams, a spokesperson for Amtrak.

THE GRETA EFFECT

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The term “Greta Effect’’ was first coined by UK media watchdog Ofcom last year to explain the rising number of 12-to-15-year-olds — nearly a fifth of children in that age group — taking part in online activism for environmental and political causes, inspired by Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg (inset). Their numbers have swelled in 2020, with a recent study from the UK finding that more than three-quarters (77 percent) of young people are considering a career in climate-change activism or the green economy. One in ten have signed an online petition this year, and eight in ten are bringing up environmental issues during family dinners. In 2021, the Greta Effect will take over the mainstream, with parents nudging their kids toward the climate-activism spotlight. They’ll be helped with apps like Earth Speakr, which encourages kids to share their personal messages about climate advocacy. “I wanted to find ways to amplify children’s ideas,” says the app’s creator, Olafur Eliasson. “Children’s views should be part of the decisions we adults are making on the future — their future.” 

SHOPPABLE TV 

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NBCUniversal has been fine-tuning Shoppable TV since 2019, when viewers were first introduced to the ad platform during the French Open. Next year, NBC plans to upgrade the service, allowing smartphone purchases to be made from TV screens without redirecting customers to a separate website, with the option of buying from several retailers in a single purchase. “It’s where consumers like to interact with brands,” says Josh Feldman, head of marketing and advertising creative for NBCUniversal. Twenty-six percent of US broadband households find the idea of making purchases directly from TV shows “appealing or very appealing,” according to a 2020 Parks Associates survey.

GHOST KITCHENS 

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More than 110,000 restaurants have closed permanently across the country since the COVID-19 pandemic began, but so-called ghost kitchens — remote facilities used solely for the purpose of fulfilling delivery-food orders — are on the rise. At least 20 of the top 200 restaurant brands will launch ghost kitchens or “virtual” locations in 2021, predicted Nikki Freihofer, a senior strategist for restaurant consulting firm the Culinary Edge. Meanwhile, website Eater predicted that ghost kitchens will be “the wave of the future,” pointing to companies like CloudKitchens, launched by former Uber founder and CEO Travis Kalanick. “These do not operate out of existing brick and mortar restaurant locations, but rather are located in centralized hubs that often contain kitchen facilities for more than one virtual brand,” Freihofer said.

ZOOM ROOMS 

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In a year when the pandemic has forced many people to work from home, a Zoom Room — a separate chamber designed solely for Zoom work calls — has become a priority for many homeowners and buyers. This summer, multimillion-dollar homes listed in San Francisco boasted of “impressive Zoom Room(s),” and Washington, DC, interior design firm Residents Understood started offering a virtual design package, starting at $350, with an eye toward making Zoom Rooms look more photogenic. “Before COVID, many of my clients stated a desire to knock down walls and completely change the apartment layout to give them an open feel,” said Asher Lipman, who’s been helping New Yorkers renovate their homes for more than 15 years. But now, homeowners are retrofitting their abodes with a space that’s private and camera-ready. A recent Zillow survey showed that homes for sale listing a separate office have jumped by 10 percent since 2019.



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