Growing Up during Economic Crises Sparks Interest in Econ

May 08, 2024

Your average 11-year-old probably doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about the economy, but some economic events leave a lasting impression even on children.

For three economists, economic crises when they were growing up in the former Soviet Union, Costa Rica and Nigeria turned their minds to big economic questions. Oksana Leukhina, Alex Monge-Naranjo and Una Osili, respectively, have spoken about how those events piqued their interest in the field of economics. This blog post draws from interviews over the past few years for the St. Louis Fed’s Women in Economics Podcast Series and for an Open Vault blog post.

The three shared at least one view that their childhood experiences helped form: Economists work to solve the kinds of issues that affected their countries.

High Inflation in the Former Soviet Union

Two women sitting at a table and wearing headphones speak into microphones.

Oksana Leukhina, right, speaks with host Maria Hasenstab for a 2019 Women in Economics episode.

Oksana Leukhina, an economic policy advisor at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, was born in the Soviet Union, which had a command economy with government-controlled prices and production. She was a child when the Soviet Union dissolved in the early 1990s, she said in a Dec. 18, 2019, Women in Economics episode. She lived through the hyperinflation and near-collapse of the payment system that followed, Leukhina said.

Leukhina’s mother, like her father, had been an engineer, but her mother changed professions to become a schoolteacher.

“I remember when she wouldn’t get paid for months and months at a time,” Leukhina said. “And so just these memories as a child kind of made me think about economics. And I wanted to understand what’s going on around me. I wanted to learn how to better design the economic system.”

High Unemployment and Devaluations in Costa Rica

Alex Monge-Naranjo was a preteen in the early 1980s when Costa Rica suffered its only major economic crisis in recent history, he said in an interview for a December 2020 Open Vault blog post.

Head and shoulders photograph of a man in business attire.

Alex Monge-Naranjo

All the issues discussed in the media and worrying citizens were economic problems: unemployment, currency devaluations and high inflation, said Monge-Naranjo, an economist at the St. Louis Fed at the time of the interview and now a professor and head of the economics department at the European University Institute. He also serves as a research fellow at the St. Louis Fed.

People were discussing those issues with intensity every day when he was at an age to be thinking about his future career, considering becoming a doctor, mathematician or archeologist, among other professions.

Monge-Naranjo said he started seeing that there were interesting problems.

“And there were some good economists discussing issues,” he said. “And I thought that they were super smart, that they seemed to be more interesting [to me] than people in other disciplines.”

Economic Shocks in Nigeria

Una Osili was in middle school and high school in Nigeria in the 1980s, a time when the oil-exporting country was facing declining oil prices and increasing social and economic needs, she said in an Oct. 24, 2018, Women in Economics episode.

Woman in business attire behind a microphone.

Una Osili

Many of the debates at the time centered on what the right monetary, fiscal and even exchange rate policies were for Nigeria, said Osili, who is the associate dean for research and international programs at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

“So, as a young person,” Osili said, “I listened intently to those debates, not quite understanding, but being very curious about, what does it take and what kinds of policies actually help countries basically adjust to economic shocks and what kinds of policies help foster and enhance growth opportunities for developing countries?”

Osili realized at the time that there really wasn’t a consensus, and the discussion and debate “got me quite interested,” she said.

When her senior year in high school brought the opportunity to study economics more formally, she found the science and math elements interesting.

Ultimately, however, what attracted Osili to economics was “its applicability to real-world problems.”

“Economists tended to work on problems that seem to affect, at the time, countries, households and also people in their everyday lives,” Osili said. “That was very compelling to me.”

About the Author
Heather Hennerich
Heather Hennerich

Heather Hennerich is a senior editor with the St. Louis Fed External Engagement and Corporate Communications Division.

Heather Hennerich
Heather Hennerich

Heather Hennerich is a senior editor with the St. Louis Fed External Engagement and Corporate Communications Division.

Related Topics

This blog explains everyday economics, consumer topics and the Fed. It also spotlights the people and programs that make the St. Louis Fed central to America’s economy. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the St. Louis Fed or Federal Reserve System.

Email Us

Media questions

Back to Top