Alicia Adserà: “In the United States, I found an ecosystem that stimulates creative processes and allows you to reinvent yourself.”
By Marc Amat
Alícia Adserà is a demographer and economist. With an undergraduate degree from the University of Barcelona and a PhD from the University of Boston, she has been a professor at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs in New Jersey, USA for more than fifteen years, where she teaches classes on economic development, migrations, demographics and gender. She is also the author of several publications and research that focus on the analysis of birth rates in OECD and Latin American countries, the importance of language in migration processes, and how migration influences labor markets. Today, we talk to her about her career, which has taken her from Catalonia to Massachusetts, Illinois, and Ohio, among other places.
For the next few days she is visiting Barcelona.
Yes, but this time I’m not coming from the United States. I just arrived from Italy. I am currently taking a sabbatical year and doing research in the economics department of the European University Institute in Florence. I came to Barcelona to attend a small conference we are holding at the University of Barcelona to talk about a book on Spanish economic policy that we are publishing. Specifically, I wrote a chapter that analyzes how it will lead to an affect on the demographic trend in Spain in the payment of pensions. I also try to explain how we have arrived at such a disastrous situation.
Should we really be worried?
Well, Spain has records in everything. On the one hand, it is one of the countries with the highest life expectancy on the planet, and on the other, it has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world. This situation, which has been going on for decades and is closely related to the complicated working conditions, has made Spain an increasingly aging population. It is estimated that by 2050 it will be one of the oldest countries, along with Japan and South Korea. This is a problem for the current pension system. It was designed in the 1940’s, when most people worked in jobs that required a lot of physical effort. Among other things, tough working conditions reduced life expectancy and consequentially, the state did not have to pay as many pensions. Today, the picture is very different. Pension spending has skyrocketed and maintaining the current design is not sustainable. Possible solutions, such as delaying the retirement age, and increasing contributions and/or taxes are complex and require great political consensus.
On the other hand, is the United States really so different?
It’s a little better. The imbalances are not as great. The country receives many more immigrants, people supplement public pensions with private pensions, and there is higher fertility rate. The result is that, on average, the population is much younger than in Spain.
Indeed, you yourself are one of those people who decided one day to come to the United States, stay there, and contribute. When did you make the decision?
It was in the early 1990s. I left for the United States just a few weeks after finishing my degree in Economics at the University of Barcelona. I had always wanted to study abroad, and my partner had been pursuing a master’s degree in the United States. I thought it would be the perfect place to go for my PhD. However, at that time, there was no Internet and getting information about the documentation you had to submit and the exams you had to pass in order to be accepted was very complicated. Luckily, in Barcelona we already had the library of the Institut d’Estudis Nord-americans, where I could get my bearings.
And then you landed in Boston. What did you find there?
A completely new world. I had always lived in the same place, in Barcelona, and arriving in Boston was a shock. One of the things that struck me most was the intensity of academic life. Doing a doctorate there meant dedicating seven days a week to it. I also loved finding an ecosystem focused on stimulating creative processes. There you could dare to think and raise issues from other points of view. I found a university environment that was full of energy, but also endowed with many resources, and a team of top-level professionals, from professors to administration staff. In addition, studying for a doctorate there gave me the opportunity to meet people from all over the world. At that time, in Spain, society was still very homogeneous. Despite its major problems and inequalities, for me the United States is a country full of second chances.
Where exactly does on see that there?
In the university system, for example, which gives many second chances to students. When young men and women start their academic path, they are not categorized into a single faculty of study. They can study economics and complement it with a class in Russian literature, if they wish. In Spain, on the other hand, for many years it was believed that if the student did this, they were wasting their time. There, in the first few years of study you create a menu of classes and taste things to see if you like them. It is not until the end of the second year that you decide what you want to specialize in. In the United States, there is great flexibility to reinvent oneself. If you are not happy with what you are doing, you may decide to change your job or move to another place at any time in your life. There is less fear of risk.
In fact, you have lived in many parts of the United States. For example, you left Boston to move to Ohio.
Yes. I went to finish my PhD there, at a distance, because my husband had found a job at The Ohio State University in Columbus. Once I had presented my dissertation, we decided to return to Barcelona for two years, where I taught at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. However, the potential and energy of American universities had already dazzled us, and we decided to return to the United States. It was not an easy decision to make. I feel Catalan, but I also love the United States. They are both part of my identity. My three children, who were already born there, speak Catalan. When I returned, I spent a year as a visiting professor at The Ohio State University, and then a new opportunity came our way.
And you packed your bags and off to Chicago.
There is a lot of mobility of professors between universities. We were very happy at the Universities of Chicago and Illinois, but one day they made us an offer again. This time, to go to Princeton University. The world of universities in the United States is very different from that in Catalonia. It is more similar to the business world. Broadly speaking, it works like a market, without the utilitarian vision that usually is given to that concept. I joined the School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University to take on economics classes, and fifteen years have passed since then.
What did you find at Princeton that made you decide to stay?
I have access to coworkers, resources, and a level of students that make it a joy to work there. In addition, we have an airport with a direct connection to Barcelona just 45 minutes away, so we can travel here often. The Catalan capital is highly regarded professionally there. It has managed to make a place on the map in disciplines such as demography, economics, and biology, with universities such as Pompeu Fabra University, the Autonomous University of Barcelona, and the University of Barcelona, all of which are very well positioned and connected. In fact, there are many teachers who, like me, decided to leave Catalonia one day and then ended up returning, enriched and with more experience. American universities know that there are interesting research centers in Barcelona.