In Conversation with Alumnus (MIR 1985), Economist and Toronto Star Contributing Business Columnist, Armine Yalnizyan

February 13, 2023 by Andy Vatiliotou

With a distinguished career spanning four decades, Armine Yalnizyan has become one of Canada's most trusted economists. Gaining early attention with The Growing Gap: A Report on Growing Inequality Between the Rich and Poor in Canada, Armine has acted as a senior economic policy adviser for the federal government, a contributor for The Globe and Mail’s Economy Lab, and a business commentator for the CBC's Metro Morning and On The Money (formerly The Lang and O’Leary Exchange). She is currently the Atkinson Fellow on the Future of Workers, and a frequent contributor to Maclean’s, TVO’s The Agenda with Steve Paikin, and BNN’s Bloomberg Markets. She is also a business columnist for The Toronto Star where she analyzes economic fluctuations, the efficacy of government responses, and how these economic policy decisions ultimately affect you and me.

I was lucky enough to sit down with Armine for a retrospective of her impressive career. We talked about her early working years, career highlights, the lessons she's gleaned about economic literacy, and why it's so important to keep the experience and wellbeing of everyday Canadians at the centre of any policy development. She also left me with words of wisdom for our current students to help them maximize their time at the CIRHR, and for our newest graduates on the cusp of entering the exciting, (occasionally unpredictable) world of work.

CIRHR Alumnus and Economist, Armine YalnizyanI was doing some reading in preparation for our chat, and in a Maclean’s profile from 2022, you’re described as the “caring person’s economist.” How would say your approach as an economist differs from the general philosophy guiding the field?

Most economists follow the money. Economics is about allocation of scarce resources, and so often when we think about the economy, we think about money. But the most scarce and universal resource is our time and how we use it, in both paid and unpaid ways. Being employed and being unemployed both shape the economy, so perhaps I think about it more as a phenomenon of how we spend our time than a lot of economists do.

Let’s chat about your time at the Centre. I’ve been here for almost a year, and I’m proud of the fact that our faculty and students aren’t merely interested in research for the sake of research, but the end goal of making the lives and experiences of workers better. Can you talk a little bit about how the Centre influenced your outlook as an economist. Were there things you learned that still serve you well in your role?

Oh, one hundred percent. When I went back to school, I fell in love with economics. Maybe it’s because I have a perverse sense of humour. I was amazed that the body of thought that was dictating so much of what decision-makers in society were doing was based on theories that, at times, did not appear very realistic or even hang together coherently that well. For example, while indifference curves were taught as the individual’s choice between work and leisure, there was no vector for unpaid work! The more I learned, the more I appreciated the theoretical constructs, but felt that they were out of step with my experience, especially as a woman.

In my undergraduate years, I studied the work of Sylvia Ostry who became my hero in economics. She was the chief statistician at what was then called the Dominion Bureau of Statistics, and one of my first experiences of labour market economics was reading Labour Economics in Canada, co-written with Mahmood A. Zaidi. It was the first time I read economic analysis that made clear women and men had different experiences, both inside and outside of the labour market.

After Dr. Ostry finished her stint as Chief Economist at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, she returned first to Toronto, and had an office at the Centre. I became one of her research assistants, which was a remarkable, unforgettable and life-changing experience. What she was researching at that time was how globalisation and technology were changing labour markets. Forty years later, I’m still working on these themes.

The interdisciplinary nature of the CIRHR program (the CIR at the time) also permitted me to study labour law, labour history, labour economics, and econometrics. I learned avidly with demographer David Foot, and I learned in opposition to John Crispo who taught organizational behaviour and had a very pro-capital and anti-labour stance.

Being a student could be immensely frustrating, but I look back on it as a remarkable period of learning new ideas and even new ways of thinking. But this period also made me realize how thought itself evolves. One of the big bonuses of graduate studies here was taking a course in public policy-making with Doug Hartle and Michael Trebilcock. They had guest lecturers every week who were in the thick of doing public policy in real time, which served as a reminder that:

Policy is a living, breathing  thing – and continually changing.

You’re not the first person to mention the interdisciplinary nature of the Centre, and the direct access it provides to experts doing important work in the field. Let’s turn to your career trajectory. Can you tell me about your first role after graduating from the Centre?

I graduated a few years after the recession of 1981-82, which was a period of the most job loss in Canada since the Great Depression. It was very difficult to find work. At the time, unions were under attack, and labour market policy within government was very anti-labour. It was difficult to put my scholarship to work. 

I did some contract work with the provincial government, then accepted a job at the Social Planning Council in 1987. I was the first economist they hired since their inception in 1933. They provided research services to human service organizations that aided workers, the unemployed, immigrants and young people of Toronto.

In 1987, these organizations were still struggling with the aftermath of the 1981-82 recession. Toronto, once the industrial hub of the country, was rapidly de-industrializing. We lost corporation after corporation. The unemployed workers with 20 or 25 years experience were actually quite young (in their 40s), but were considered older workers who would likely never get rehired.

My first project was to examine labour market trends in Toronto, compared to Ontario, compared to Canada, and create an inventory of labour market adjustment programs. The number and type of programs we had for training and retraining the unemployed was simply insufficient for the massive shifts underway, with primarily immigrant workers and young “old” workers unable to provide for their families; women picking up very low paid service sector jobs; and the breakup of families because of this macho mindset that men should be the providers.

We were seeing demands for housing, training, family counselling, and child protection, and it was all due to this enormous transformation of the labour market, in real time, with few supports for these people. In fact, soon after I started that job, the federal government decided to cut unemployment insurance too, just as they introduced free trade policies that accelerated the de-industrialization of Toronto.

That experience reinforced how important it is to have people somewhere near the center of your policy development;
otherwise, you could make more money, or reduce deficits, but you're going to be creating completely avoidable and unnecessary pain.

It was a period that was very baldly money vs. people, capital vs. labour.  I was doing the right work, for the right reasons, but I was out of step with my own profession.

It sounds like that first role gave you insight into both the possibilities and blind spots of economics. Equipped with that knowledge, where did you go next?

The work I was doing was quite unique, looking at how labour markets were changing and more women were working; at what kind of work, and what kind of hours, they were working; at how we were losing Monday to Friday, 9 to 5 household-sustaining jobs, and the jobs we were getting were increasingly part-time, low-paid, and unable sustain a family.

That work led me to document a phenomenon that was not happening anywhere else in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) nations, which was the polarization of working hours. Canada was the only country where that was happening. Ontario was leading that trend, and Toronto was leading the Ontario trend, but it eventually unfolded across the country in the wake of the 1981-82 recession, and that polarization of working hours ended up being the canary in the coal mine on growing income inequality, which didn’t become a theme for about 10 years.

Around 1997, I took a leave from the Social Planning Council and accepted a contract to focus on research about growing income inequality in Canada. The Growing Gap report took everybody by surprise, including myself. Published in 1998, it remains one of my most important pieces of work.

And it led to other exciting consultancy projects, including work on healthcare economics in support of the Romanow Commission process, another turn at the Social Planning Council as their research director, and a nearly ten-year funding contract to further explore and communicate trends in income inequality in Canada for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives – between men and women, but also between rich and poor. What would you describe as the turning point in your career?

My career took a remarkable turn in 2017, when I worked with the federal government’s foresight team on the future of work and how digital technologies are changing labour markets. Then I was asked to go work as senior economic advisor to the Deputy Minister of Employment and Social Development Canada. After that ended, I was awarded a fellowship on the future of workers for the Atkinson Foundation, which has been a pure thrill.  I can throw myself at emerging issues of interest, and that’s been so much fun it attracted the interest of The Toronto Star, which invited me to be a regular contributor. That has its own challenges and opens up my work to a much wider audience. It’s been quite a ride!

And a wonderfully diverse career. Looking back, which part of your work has been the most rewarding and the most challenging? Where you do you feel you’ve been able to make the greatest impact?

What I've learned over the years is that if you can speak to the public clearly about the economic issues they are experiencing, you can make a difference. Economic literacy is a powerful tool for people to have. And, as for economists themselves, it’s no good doing great research if nobody knows about it. The role of a “public” economist also requires unlearning academic writing. That took me a very, very long time.

Complex ideas without complex language.

That’s right. For about 10 years, I was involved with Amanda Lang and Kevin O'Leary on a weekly panel called The Big Picture, part of their nightly business show for CBC, The Lang and O’Leary Exchange. At the beginning, I spent way too much time preparing myself with facts and numbers;  but sparring with Kevin O’Leary, getting coaching  from the executive producer, and just going through the process, week after week, taught me that:

If you can think in headlines, you can get your ideas across more effectively.

Kevin O'Leary also taught me it doesn’t even matter if you contradict yourself: if you say something one week and say the opposite the next week – briefly and clear as a bell – people will remember it. The sharp quip, humour, and clarity gets your point across. As a writer for The Toronto Star, and previously for my Metro Morning business columns with Matt Galloway for CBC Radio, the thing that is the most basic is the hardest to practice: if people don't understand what you're saying, it doesn't matter what you're saying, or what you know. Being smart and on top of your profession isn’t enough.

Absolutely, and it’s very easy to block out information we don’t understand, especially if we think it doesn’t apply to us. If a person doesn’t have a mortgage, for example, they might not give much thought to rising interest rates or what’s causing them.

Well, I think you're touching on something that is actually more interesting than interest rates and mortgages, and that is: what are the patterns that are so stable you could disregard them?

For 30 years, we had very stable inflation and unusually low interest rates like we've never seen before in history, and a whole generation took these highly unusual circumstances as a given. There’s also this cognitive dissonance we face daily, because we are both worker and consumer, in one body, and those two entities want different things. We like Uber because it’s cheap, but Uber drivers aren’t even making minimum wage. Would we be okay with that?

This is the biggest challenge when it comes to the lure of endlessly cheap and flat prices. Nobody wants to think about a “deal” as something with a high cost for someone else. The idea of convenience and cheapness has become such an overriding ethic, it’s not going to disappear in a period of high inflation.

We think of our relationships to the economy and the world around us, not as relational but transactional and individual. “What can I get out of this? Can I pay less? Can I make more?” But it is relational.

There is not one part of the economy that doesn’t rely on unpaid work, on publicly funded infrastructure,
on workers who are as healthy and as educated as possible. Simply put: we need each other.

It’s been really illuminating to read your work in the Toronto Star. As someone with an arts background, I feel like I’ve gotten a crash course in economics (and I must tell you, it’s a little scary to know the things I didn’t know before)!

Welcome to my world!

Is there a particular article that you've written, or a subject you've reported on, that you're especially proud of?

I’m proud of the income inequality work I’ve done, early on with The Growing Gap, and later with Making Every Job a Good Job; and my alerting the general public to trends in temporary foreign workers, and how Canada was relying increasingly on temporary foreign workers with zero policy discussion.

I’m also proud of coining the term she-cession in March 2020 on CBC’s The Current with Matt Galloway. All recessions areCIRHR Alumnus and Economist, Armine Yalnizyan he-cessions, as any labour economist will know. In Canada, between 94% and 97% of job loss in every recession since World War II was among male workers, but in 2020, when the pandemic shut down economies around the world, it was completely the opposite: women lost most of the jobs initially, though men caught up.

Similarly, in every previous recession, the initial recovery was among women willing to take on part-time, and usually low-paid service sector jobs. This time, the initial recovery was among higher-paid men, often in service sectors, but also in goods-producing sectors. Everything about this highly unusual episode of job loss (which wasn’t really a recession) turned the usual job loss story upside down. And the descriptor “she-cession” became a globally adopted term that shaped the conversation.

I’ve heard it again and again since then – it’s now part of the zeitgeist.

It is! And that led to my slogan of summer 2020, No recovery without she-covery, no she-covery without childcare. About a year later we had a childcare program, after 50 years of asking for one. The pandemic made clear the degree to which childcare is an economic issue, not a women’s issue. If you want to slow down economic recovery, go right ahead and ignore the role of childcare. You want to speed it up? Remove the bottlenecks for women getting back to work. Make sure we have affordable, high-quality childcare.

The last thing I would point to is my recent challenge of the Bank of Canada policy to raise interest rates. The problem they’re trying to avoid is a wage price spiral when there is no evidence of one, and I’ve dubbed it an anti-worker policy from the 1990s that is not fit for purpose in the 2020s. That’s just this past week, but I think it has the potential to be one of the more transformative discussions.

Thank you for such a lovely conversation, Armine.

Thank you – it’s been a pleasure.

One last question to wrap things up: is there a piece of advice that you would give to incoming students to maximize their experience at the Centre, or a piece of advice for graduating students on the verge of entering this (at the moment) strange world of work?

Incoming students: please permit yourself to question your priors. Listen to as many voices as you can; you will never again have this opportunity to hear from some of the most educated people, or people who simply don’t think like you. Open your mind to a range of ideas, possibly the biggest diversity of ideas you’ll experience in your life. Keep your mouth shut, your ears open, and then debate. But listen first. Listen, listen, listen.

For those of you who are entering the labour market: you are part of a generation of workers with more bargaining power than any generation has seen in Canada or anywhere in the world for the last half century. Use it wisely. Decide carefully how you want to spend your time, and who to spend your time with. Time is more valuable than money.

Armine's most recent Toronto Star article, Centralized wait-lists work. So why isn’t Canada using them in health care across the country?, is available now.