Aki Kangasharju, the managing director of Research Institute of the Finnish Economy (ETLA), is a well-known economist. He knows how to speak about the economy so that even lay people understand, and so he has become a familiar face in the media. This JYU alumnus participates actively in economic policy discussions and has done extensive research in support of economic policy. He is also a member of the JYU University Board.
Aki Kangasharju comes from originally Haapavesi, from Northern Ostrobothnia. In his final year of upper secondary school, he was wondering aloud at their kitchen table what to do when he “grew up”. His older sister was studying at the time in Jyväskylä as a prospective home economics teacher. She told him about the young male economics students she had met in Jyväskylä. The term ‘economics’ got stuck in Aki’s mind and sounded interesting.
Kangasharju cycled to Haapavesi City Library to search for a book about economics. On the shelf, there was a book entitled Kansantaloustiede authored by Pekka Sutela and Jukka Pekkarinen. It opened a new world for him. In the book, Sutela and Pekkarinen explain society and the economy by analysing the causes and consequences of various phenomena. Kangasharju found the explanations to be especially interesting reading.
After graduating from upper secondary school, Kangasharju applied to several universities to study economics. He was admitted to all of them, but chose the University of Jyväskylä.
“In my mind, Jyväskylä had a better general brand than those other places. In addition, I might compare the different departments a bit – at the University of Jyväskylä the department of economics might have already been bigger, at that time, than at the peer universities.”
When thinking back on his study years in Jyväskylä, Aki highlights becoming more independent as the best thing. “It was great to make decisions on studies and other things independent from my schoolmates or family,” Aki reminisces. He was soon caught up with research. After completing his master’s degree, Kangasharju continued his studies, working as a researcher, and earned a doctorate in economics at the age of 29.
“I wasn’t really close with the students in my class. I also spent a year in Canterbury during my basic degree studies, and so I was a bit detached from the others.”
In his research, Aki Kangasharju was interested in studying social issues using statistical methods. In his doctoral dissertation, he studied the long-term development of regional differences.
Kangasharju worked for a year as a visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). There he familiarised himself with studies evaluating the effects of political decisions, research that had not yet been done in Finland. After returning to Finland, he started to apply these methods to study, for example, the interaction between housing subsidies and prices. “For a long time, my identity was that of a researcher,” he says.
In his research career, Kangasharju aimed at a professorship and focused on writing scientific articles. In 2008, the professorship became a reality. While the writing of publications was left in the background, Kangasharju wanted to use his expertise in other ways. He started to make reports for external parties and participate actively in societal discussion.
Kangasharju was appointed as the Director-General of VATT Institute for Economic Research in 2011. Before that, he had worked there as a research professor and research director since 2001. Soon he was recruited to Nordea, first as a research director and then as the chief economist. In March 2019, he became the managing director of ETLA.
As an active participant in discussions, he seeks to communicate clearly and concisely. At Nordea, he sent the bank’s analysts to speech and writing courses so as to prevent any professional jargon and overly academic tones from undermining the comprehensibility of messages. Accordingly, as a researcher and economic observer, Aki states that continuous learning is crucial.
“The economy and society are constantly changing organisms rather than machines that one masters when once they have been learned. In these jobs, you immediately lose touch if you stop searching for something new.”
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