Interview , News of 27 October 2014

SOEP People: John Haisken-DeNew

John Haisken-DeNew is Professor of Economics and Associate Dean (Research) of the Faculty of Business and Economics at the University of Melbourne. He previously held a position as Professor of Economics and Chair in “Economic Policy: Competition Theory and Policy” at the Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany. Originally from Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, he came to Germany in 1988 first as a research assistant, then as a doctoral student. In 1996, he joined the Socio-Economic Panel at DIW Berlin after completing his doctorate degree in economics at the University of Munich (LMU) under Klaus F. Zimmermann and remained until 2002. His research interests range from applied labor economics to migration, welfare, and life satisfaction. We met John in an Australian café in Berlin during the 11th Socio-Economic Panel User Conference.

When did you first discover the SOEP data?

That was in 1992 when I was living in Munich. It was around the time of the Yugoslavian war and migration was a huge issue. There was talk in the press and the pubs about all the horrible effects that foreigners would have on the wages of Germans. It turned out to be the subject of my dissertation to test whether this was true. Here I was, a foreigner doing research on the effects of foreigners in Germany. And I had this fantastic SOEP data on foreigners who had come to Germany in the last 20 years and on the effect they would have on Germany. And the effects, of course, were very tiny. I thought that was a big finding.

You’ve been working with SOEP data for more than 20 years now. What is it that makes these data so special?

So much of what we see in an economics bachelor, master, or PhD is very hypothetical, very fictitious. We’re talking about goods A and B being bought by persons 1 and 2. That’s not very tangible. But if you look at the SOEP data, people are born; people get married and divorced; people become unemployed. People die. These are real lives. Doing research with SOEP data means doing research with real people. That’s what makes it special for me.

Looking over your publications, life satisfaction stands out as one of your main research areas. Does that research have a personal dimension – has it affected how you define happiness?

For me, every single project that I’ve ever worked on has had some very personal dimension to it that has made it meaningful for me - meaningful in the way that I can understand the world. The data has helped me understand the way things work. And it certainly has been instrumental in finding out what the important things in life are. I think back to my hometown of Hamilton, Ontario, which is very much like many other industrial cities in the western world – Bochum, Germany, or Geelong on the outskirts of Melbourne, Australia. These are towns that had a very strong industrial structure 50 years ago but do not any more. People have become unemployed. The research on life satisfaction lets me know what kind of a loss these people are suffering. And the SOEP dataset has allowed me to quantify these effects: The effect of unemployment is dramatically negative and very powerful, and something people and policy makers need to know about.

You moved to Australia in 2011 – What’s your connection to the SOEP now?

I’m still a user of the SOEP and have some projects that I am doing together with former grad students. I also write software called PanelWhiz that makes it easy to extract data from several data sets – the SOEP data and also the Australian Household Panel. So I keep in contact with the SOEP that way and I support the SOEP in what they’re doing. And I make it easier for young people to get access to the SOEP data.

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to young researchers today?

Don’t waste time researching stuff you personally don’t care about. Only do the research on the stuff you care about. Life is short enough. Use your time wisely. If you’re lucky, someone sees your research. If you’re lucky, someone cites you, you can have an influence on policy and you can change – potentially – laws. If you care about that and that’s who you are, that’s got to be one of the most satisfying feelings.

The whole interview in a film in the DIW Mediathek.