Globally, ecosystems are being reconfigured by a range of intensifying human-induced stressors. Coral reefs are at the forefront of this environmental transformation, and if we are to secure their key ecosystem functions and services, it is important to understand the likely configuration of future reefs. However, the composition and trajectory of global coral reef benthic communities is currently unclear. Here our global dataset of 24,468 observations spanning 22 years (1997–2018) revealed that particularly marked declines in coral cover occurred in the Western Atlantic and Central Pacific. The data also suggest that high macroalgal cover, widely regarded as the major degraded state on coral reefs, is a phenomenon largely restricted to the Western Atlantic. At a global scale, the raw data suggest decreased average (± standard error of the mean) hard coral cover from 36 ± 1.4% to 19 ± 0.4% (during a period delineated by the first global coral bleaching event (1998) until the end of the most recent event (2017)) was largely associated with increased low-lying algal cover such as algal turfs and crustose coralline algae. Enhanced understanding of reef change, typified by decreased hard coral cover and increased cover of low-lying algal communities, will be key to managing Anthropocene coral reefs.