Jaakko Simonen: Could we teach resilience to people?
The people behind GenZ EconRe
Jaakko Simonen is currently working as a GenZ associate professor (tenure track) at the faculty of Economics at the University of Oulu. He completed his master's degree in Economics at the University of Lapland, but in 1997, he entered the University of Oulu and started working as a research assistant. Soon after that, he began his postgraduate studies, spent a year in England, and obtained his doctorate in 2007.
Since then, Simonen has undertaken different research projects, established and maintained international networks, taught at his faculty and has also been appointed to different administrative positions. He has, for instance, been working in accreditation tasks at Oulu Business School and is now the director of the Doctoral programme at the faculty of Economics.
Simonen’s research topics have included labor mobility and innovation in the high-technology sector. Nowadays, Simonen is equally interested in regional economics and regional resilience.
Resilience is one of the strategic profiling themes in the GenZ project, and it is regarded as the ability to adapt to and anticipate change. Strengthening all levels of resilience – individual, organisational, and regional – means that we are better equipped for the future. The co-evolution of emerging technologies, as well as abrupt societal changes - such as the Covid-19 pandemic - require resilience at all three levels.
Resilience on different levels is also Jemina Kotila’s main research interest. Kotila completed her master’s thesis in the GenZ EconRe research group, and she is soon to begin her postgraduate studies, which will enable her to expand on the resilience theme.
Joona Lohtander, on the other hand, examined gig economics and online labor markets in his master’s thesis – phenomena which are linked to labor market resilience. Lohtander will also begin his postgraduate studies soon and will be focusing on gig economics in more detail.
Evangelos Mourelatos is a postdoctoral researcher, who has applied concepts from psychology, including mood and personality, into the investigation of human resilience in the contexts of online labor markets as well as in digital crowdsourcing platforms.
Technology can advance resilience in work life
For a while, Simonen and his research group have been investigating regional economics in the so-called Arctic five cities located across Finland, Sweden, and Norway. The main aim has been to understand how people have reacted to the Covid-19 pandemic in these regions, and how the pandemic has affected the local labor markets.
For instance, they have used labor mobility data, provided by google, to understand how people have reacted to the arrival of the pandemic – the closings of the restaurants, remote work, and other Covid-19 restrictions.
Some of the findings of this longitudinal study indicate that people in Oulu have chosen to continue working from home, while in the other Arctic five cities, people have returned to their offices. Simonen thinks that the decision to remain at home may be reflective of the structural differences in job descriptions in Oulu particularly. Jobs within the information technology sector, for instance, enable employees to work from home.
The role of technology in enabling remote work is, in Simonen’s view, a concrete example of resilience.
“We indeed took a leap with technology in the beginning of the pandemic. It shows that technology can further resilience, our ability to adapt to changes,” Simonen comments.
However, the repercussions of remote working becoming increasingly common are yet to be seen.
“Technology and remote work have revolutionised the labor markets of jobs reliant on information technology. A person from Oulu can easily work for someone living in New York, for instance. But the absence of a workplace community changes how the work is done – there is nothing that binds the worker to that particular workplace. The employee might be more prone to changing workplaces, if suddenly provided with a more lucrative opportunity. Overall, the development of technology does not come without its side effects, and it is unclear whether remote work is profitable at all levels,” Simonen adds.
According to Simonen, making fine-tuned predictions about the future is challenging within economic research due to the presence of numerous factors interacting to form a chain reaction.
However, Simonen views commuting becoming more common as one potential outcome of the near future. At least in Helsinki, it is already quite common that people commute relatively short distances to the nearby cities.
“Since working remotely has become more acceptable, I wonder if we will see changes in commuting. For instance, people living in Oulu might find jobs in Helsinki and travel there perhaps just once a week,” Simonen says.
Operationalising and measuring resilience
Before the GenZ project began, Simonen and his research group had focused on examining the regional resilience in Oulu: what happened after more than 3000 people lost their jobs due to Nokia’s collapse?
The findings indicated that the former employees of Nokia stayed in Oulu. They re-educated themselves, accepted lower salaries, and found new jobs, thus enabling Oulu to adapt to the structural change of Nokia’s downfall.
According to Simonen, this is an enlightening example of individual-based regional resilience. Although other solutions and policymaking were involved, the individual workers were at the basis of regional resilience.
“This is something that we are continuously trying to enhance our understanding of. How the different levels of resilience – individual, organisational, regional – interact with each other, and how they are connected,” Simonen comments.
“We are always learning new things as we are doing research. We want to make sense of the world, why something happens the way it does. But what also fascinates us is the question of whether we can teach resilience to others. Can we make generalisations from Oulu’s case? And can we teach resilience to children, for example?” he adds.
However, researching resilience is not an easy task. The difficulties come in terms of operationalising and measuring resilience. Research on economics is often concerned with numerical data, and deducing resilience based on numbers is challenging.
Kotila further realised the difficulty when writing her master's thesis. She studied resilience on individual, organisational and regional levels; their definitions and measurement. Her data included one of the city of Oulu’s venture capital funds. She analyzed the success of these funds and their effect on regional resilience specifically.
Kotila concluded that individual, organisational and regional resilience are connected, but it is still unclear how they are connected - more research is needed.
“Measuring resilience on the individual level is difficult. Even if a person is resilient as an individual, that might change when affiliated to a group. A certain factor can promote resilience in one context but be harmful in another. We need more research to understand how everything is connected,” Kotila says.
Mourelatos says that his main research interest is in behavioral economics, because integrating psychological concepts (such as mood and personality) into the research helps understand how individual characteristics affect economic decision-making.
Simonen further adds that economics is at heart about the choices that people make, and that creates difficulties in the measurements, and generalisations of findings.
“Economics is rooted in the choices that people make – consumer habits, use of transportation, leisure time activities, the type of work one does. We engage in continuous trade-offs, and we weigh our choices,” Simonen explains.
“How we act is difficult to measure and generalise. But within economic research, we strive to understand why we make the choices that we make. By nature, economic research enables us to expand our understanding continuously,” he adds.
Research on resilience continues
Simonen mentions that the GenZ project has introduced him to multidisciplinary research. He is delighted to have been able to network with new people within GenZ.
“The most rewarding and at the same time challenging aspect of working in GenZ has been the multidisciplinary nature of the project. Not only multidisciplinary, but also interdisciplinary. In a sense, we are interested in the same phenomena, but we approach it from different perspectives, with different terminologies. It has been challenging but also highly rewarding,” Simonen adds.
Simonen and his research group are hoping to continue with their work on researching resilience. Kotila and Lohtander are looking forward to fully starting their postgraduate studies. Kotila wishes to focus on the people living in Oulu, while Lohtander wants to expand his knowledge on the choices people make in online labor markets.
In terms of future research, Simonen wants to further explore resilience on individual and organisational levels. Simonen mentions aspects such as structures, governance, and the choices people make as points of interest in relation to their effects on the region's growth and vulnerability to external shocks.
Simonen thinks that Oulu offers a convenient environment for examining resilience on all its levels – Oulu as a region has undergone several changes. Understanding the effects of these changes is challenging, but it remains a grand goal of the EconRe research group.