COVID-19: The Economists' Experience

Home Office and Uncertainty

COVID-19: The Economists' Experience

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That the world of work has radically changed we know, we see it before our eyes: kitchens have replaced offices; pyjamas, suits; and housemates often now fill the space previously occupied by colleagues. But how have these changes - and others - been felt by economists around the world? Through a textual analysis undertaken in the INOMICS Salary Survey, we answer that question and, in doing so, paint an anecdotal picture of economists’ COVID experience.

Fortunately, most economists - particularly researchers - have been able to home-office throughout the crisis, transitioning with some ease, with much of their work already reliant solely on access to a computer. This is reflected by almost two thirds of economists reporting that, besides the migration home, they’ve experienced no change to their work. In the words of one: ‘it’s all remained the same’. 

The same, however, cannot be said of teachers, for whom the transition to online learning, while mostly possible, has invariably been a bumpy road. Capturing the prevailing mood, teachers described E-teaching as ‘difficult, time-consuming and boring’, bemoaned their lack of ‘technical help’, and spoke of increased ‘inefficiency’ that had led to ‘an increased workload’. Students mirrored this frustration, though for different reasons. They cited reduced tutor contact hours as a disruptive influence, and were also dismayed by the closure of libraries. For many, though, it’s the future that is the greatest cause of concern.

COVID-19: The Economists' ExperienceThe scarcity of job opportunities was reported multiple times as a primary consequence of the pandemic, a concern expressed often by those on the verge of graduation, or early in their careers. This development will be especially worrisome for those straddled with enormous student loan debt (American student loan debt stands $1.5 trillion) who now face an increasingly precarious future. The prospect of which, according to testimonies from this cohort, has prompted increases in ‘mental stress’, ‘anxiety’, and a fear of perpetual joblessness, all compounded by knowledge that, in certain areas, the worst of the pandemic could be yet to come.

The demand for diminishing work was also noted to have negatively affected worker power, empowering the employer. Articulating this emerging reality, one economist predicted that ‘labor struggles for fair pay [would] continue in the long term’, while an economics PhD relayed, in slightly more dramatic terms, that labor relations at their workplace ‘were destroyed’.

Another frequent story was that of ‘delayed promotions’, almost 10% of survey participants reporting a promotion postponed as a result of the pandemic. Epitomising this experience, one researcher explained that his promotion was ‘postponed because my research has stalled. I cannot go for visiting research stays in universities and research institutes locally and internationally. And without research, my work has been made redundant as I now do mostly teaching, lecturing and administrative work online from home.’ Such disillusion was not uncommon.

A sizable number have also lost their jobs, around 6% of survey participants, and the prospect of this number increasing is having a significant effect, many noting a pervading ‘atmosphere of uncertainty’, aptly captured by one economist who spoke of the looming ‘threat of future redundancies’ that hovered over his workplace.

Put in perspective, though,  economics has, by-and-large, been able to work on through, placing it among the luckier industries. The discipline can also be both proud of the work it’s continued to produce and the role it’s assumed responding to the crisis. There’s little doubt - in the face of the pandemic economists have risen to the challenge.

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