My most popular post on this blog – by far! – remains the Why and what to study in South Africa entry I wrote in May 2013. My advice was pretty simple: if you can do math, study a degree where you will develop your math skills further. Math and statistics, combined with economics, computer science and/or engineering sciences, will make you an incredibly desirable employee: both in South Africa and abroad.
I was reminded of this advice when I attended the world’s largest gathering of economists last week in San Francisco. The ASSA meetings spanned three days, had more than 500 sessions with more than 12 000 participants. I presented a paper with Dieter von Fintel (on persistence and reversal of fortune) in a session on apartheid – with excellent papers by Johannes Norling (on fertility), Dan de Kadt and Melissa Sands (on voting), and Martine Mariotti and Taryn Dinkelman (on remittances and migration). And there were many other excellent sessions: notable ones I attended was a session on long-run inequality (with a very entertaining Philippe Aghion), a session on writing books (see photo), and a session on early childhood development (where Melissa Kearney presented a paper I reported on here).
But what reminded me about my math advice was a discussion during one session about the need to diversify academia. One commentator mentioned that the reason for the slow diversification of economics faculty is the high level of mathematics required to do a PhD in Economics in the US. (The slow transformation was quite apparent at the conference: the vast majority of attendees were white males.) Much like in South Africa, black students in the US would often opt out of math courses because of poor grades or a bad experience at school. They are thus more likely to end up in the humanities and less likely to study more ‘mathy’ degrees, like economics.
Yet, there is an increasing realisation that the current state of affairs – the white, male bias – is neither fair nor sustainable. Harvard’s chair of the Economics department, David Laibson, confirmed this: he was quite explicit that Harvard will focus on hiring more diverse staff during his tenure. This is likely to increase the demand for female and black economists (and engineers, scientists, actuaries, statisticians) significantly in the foreseeable future. But to suspect that the market will automatically adjust – that the higher demand will induce more black students to study economics – is unlikely. That is why there are several programmes in the US to inform high school students of the possibilities that economics can offer, showing them the wide applicability of economics in their daily lives. (Economists, for example, study how Discovery Vitality can get their members to live healthier lives, they study how to make things like Uber and Airbnb more efficient, they study what’s wrong with the school system and how to improve it, they study how firms compete and grow, they study the minimum wage and its impact and, yes, they also study financial markets and the banking system. Just watch this video).
Economics departments in South Africa are certainly not doing enough to promote the field to young scholars. Prospective students have a very narrow view of what an economist does, if they have a view at all. I know I never thought much about Economics before I arrived in my Economics 1 class. But the truth is that there is a massive demand for good economists, both in South Africa and, as I witnessed for myself in San Francisco, abroad. South Africa’s services industry needs far more graduates with strong mathematical or statistical backgrounds; the industries of the future will require the analyses and interpretation of (big) data, skills for which economists are well-equipped.
So, what should you study? This is an incredibly tough decision to make at a young age, and it almost certainly will have a big impact on the quality of your life. But here goes: if you have the ability, you can narrow the risk that your choice will turn out to be a bad one by developing your math and stats capabilities. And if you really want to enjoy what you’re doing (yes, I’m biased), combine it with Economics.