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Applying new thinking to the field of family economics

She was the girl who always finished her maths book in August, before the first month of the school year was even over. Today, Katrine Vellesen Løken is the youngest ever female professor of economics in Norway.

Professor Katrine Vellesen Løken, Department of Economics, University of Bergen.
Kim E. Andreassen


In 2015, at the age of 31, Katrine Vellesen Løken at the University of Bergen’s (UiB) Department of Economics became Norway’s youngest woman professor of economics.

She tells how she was always good at school, having a good routine and working hard. However, the driving force behind her research has been a desire to make a difference.

“I hope that my research can have some influence on the shaping of policy, both inside and outside of Norway,” says Vellesen Løken.

A researcher with political impact

Indeed, her research has already had an influence on significant political decisions. In Nepal, the government are now bringing in new treatment measures for premature babies weighing under 1,500 grams, thanks to one of her articles published in the world’s most prestigious economics journal, the American Economic Review.

The article is a product of the research she undertook as a guest researcher at the University of California, San Diego in 2011-2012. Together with colleagues, she studied the effect of early intervention for premature babies and how this affected their later achievements in school.

“We discovered that newborns under 1,500 grams who received extra treatment performed considerably better at school than those who were just over the weight boundary and did not receive extra treatment,” says Vellesen Løken.

Paternity leave is contagious

A recently published article based on her doctorate from 2010 has attracted a lot of attention, causing people in Norway to change their view of parental leave. The article concerns the length of parental leave and was published in the renowned Journal of Political Economy. Vellesen Løken made astonishing findings when analysing all of the parental leave given throughout the years in Norway.

“The conclusion is that there are positive and significant long-term consequences for the child when the mother spends the first six months of the child’s life at home, she says.

“Beyond those six months, maternity leave has no effect upon the child, except from a socio-economic perspective. After this time, the child could just as well be with its father or grandparents as with its mother.”

Using large data sets

Vellesen Løken studied large data sets relating to family economics, working life and child development. A lot of her work concerns parental leave taken in Norway. One particular aspect of her research focused on the effects of the paternity leave reform which was introduced in 2003. Her study was based on register data from Statistics Norway (SSB) and led to another article which was published in the American Economic Review.

“Paternity leave is contagious. Colleagues were far more likely to take paternity leave in those workplaces where someone else had already taken it than where leave had not been taken up,” says Vellesen Løken.

When Dad is in jail

In 2015 the newly fledged economics professor was also allocated NOK 7 million from the FRIPRO programme run by the Research Council of Norway to study the consequences for families and children when the father is locked up in jail.

“When someone is sitting in a courtroom, the punishment meted out can be a matter of chance. Because some judges are less lenient than others, the same crime can, in practice, receive different sentences,” says Vellesen Løken, who continues:

“I intend to study how variations in prison sentences affect the children of inmates.”

The economics professor is working from a hypothesis based on previous research on two opposing tendencies found amongst children with incarcerated fathers.

“Things can either go badly for the child because the father is an important role model, or it can be a good thing that the father is absent, simply because he is a criminal. But it is not obvious what the result of the study will be,” explains Vellesen Løken.

She will match data from the courts with prison registers to see how different court judgements for the same sort of crime can have different consequences. Aside from the children, she will also research the social consequences for those who remain in prison and those who get released, and how things go for the family, friends and colleagues of the inmate.

New discipline within economic research

Family economics is a relatively new field within the discipline of economics. It originated in the 1970s and gained enormous popularity at the beginning of the 2000s after the field was brought to prominence by Nobel Prize winner Gary Becker. The field of study is influenced by other disciplines such as sociology and medicine, and has acquired a multidisciplinary character. Vellesen Løken encourages others to study, research and work with social economics, not least of all with family economics.

“I think it is exciting to study large datasets and economic reforms from the past and see what effect they have had on children growing up. It demonstrates how much people’s lives can be influenced in childhood. The field of economics is consequently about so much more than finance and shares.”

For anyone who is interested in social economics, Vellesen Løken heartily recommends that they study it at university.

“At university, you see a much closer relationship with other disciplines, especially sociology.”

Think results, not perfection

In the course of her career, Vellesen Løken has published articles in the five most prestigious economics journals in the world. She believes that the recipe for her success has been to write quickly without being too worried about everything being perfect.

“I know of many people who have stagnated because they felt their writing would never be good enough,” says Vellesen Løken. “Learn to say ‘stop’ and move on, even if, now and then, not everything is quite spot on.”