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Meet the young economists looking to inspire their generation

08:30am February 27 2024

Westpac economists (from left) Jameson Coombs, Ryan Wells and Illiana Jain. (Sahlan Hayes)

Many people fall in love in Italy, it’s less common that the object of their affection is economics. 

But for Illiana Jain a period spent as an exchange student at an economics university in Milan helped to nurture her passion for a subject which touches on so many aspects of human activity.  

“Economics provides a framework for how to think about the world, how to think about human behaviour and how to make sense of what’s happening around us. I really wanted a job that allowed me to do that,” says Jain, 25, who is responsible for assessing economic and financial market developments in Europe and Asia for the bank having joined in May last year. 

On returning from Italy, Jain dropped her previous plan to become a dentist to focus on a career in economics. She’s now among a cohort of young economists at Westpac looking to bring a fresh perspective on the subject, and hopefully inspire others to tread the same path. 

Illiana Jain. (Sahlan Hayes)

Growing up, Jain didn’t see many people like her doing the sort of jobs she aspired to. That’s why she’s keen to promote more diversity in her profession.

“If you’re not being challenged by people from different walks of life then your understanding of what’s going on in society isn’t going to be robust. It’s really important to have people from a diverse range of perspectives,” Jain says. 

In particular, she wants to inspire more young women to educate themselves on economic issues and improve their financial literacy.

“We’ve seen over the last few years that women are more involved in the workforce than they’ve ever been and they’re also going into jobs that are more highly paid,” Jain says. The first female governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia Michele Bullock and Westpac’s own chief economist Luci Ellis are further helping to raise the profile of women in economics.  

Even so, a gender gap in financial literacy persists in Australia. A Melbourne Institute study in 2020 showed the mean score for females in a financial literacy test was 3.5 out of 5, compared with 4 out of 5 for males. Addressing that gap will also help to reduce gender wage differentials, Jain adds.

More broadly, people aged under 35 performed significantly worse in the test than older generations.    

At a time when young people are being disproportionately affected by cost of living and housing affordability challenges, the findings underline the need for economists who can communicate effectively to a younger demographic. 

“There’s room for improvement,” says Ryan Wells, 25, who covers the Australian economy at Westpac with particular focus on the labour market. He joined the bank in 2021. 

“To be able to bring a younger perspective, it helps to develop a more representative view about decisions that are being made and the experiences people are truly having.”

Ryan Wells. (Sahlan Hayes)

Wells says he was drawn to economics because it fed his curiosity about how the world works.

“While as an individual I felt I was far removed from things like trade and investment and policy I was surprised to learn just how much of it can shape so many aspects of life. That curiosity is something I’ve really tried to keep hold of.”

Just as important was having inspiring tutors and mentors who have guided him along the way, he adds.    

Jameson Coombs, an economist with the bank since 2021, says there is appetite among young people for content on the economic issues that matter to them.

“The interest is definitely there,” says Coombs, who is also 25. “A lot of young people are renters, they want to know if their rent is going up in the next 12 months and by how much, they want to know if the cost of living is going to go down and are houses ever going to be affordable. I think there is an opportunity to take on that market.”

Coombs had planned to embark on a career in sports physiotherapy, but a last-minute change of heart saw him enrol in an economics degree at the University of Technology Sydney. He soon discovered he had an aptitude for the subject which, like Jain and Wells, fed his curiosity to find out more about the economic forces that drive human activity. 

Jameson Coombs. (Sahlan Hayes)

For all three young economists, it’s vital for them to stay abreast of economic trends not just in Australia, but globally, as well as what influential commentators are saying in mainstream media. Still, they’re also mindful that young people generally are more likely to be scrolling through TikTok or Instagram than watching the ABC news.

Social media has a huge role to play in helping to educate the younger generations on the economic issues that matter to them, Wells says.

“There’s an appeal to getting concise explanations and high-level overviews that you can take away and use in your day-to-day life and social media is a fantastic platform for that. I do see it being used more and more.”

Coombs is wary of the deluge of fake news and misinformation that people can be exposed to on social media, and as a qualified economist takes his role seriously as a trusted source of insight and analysis. 

“Economics can seem quite dull and boring to a lot of people, and that’s why I see my job as not just to make it simple but also make it interesting.” 

Jain, Coombs and Wells all say that job hunting as a young graduate was tough during the pandemic. Coombs sent out hundreds of CVs and attended countless interviews before landing the role at Westpac. But they agree that the slog was worth it and for anyone considering following a similar path there’s one key trait you must have. 

“Always stay curious,” says Wells. ”Dive deeper into subjects you are passionate about. Curiosity is so important to sustain yourself in a career that involves economics and will carry you far.”

James Thornhill was appointed as editor of Westpac Wire in May 2022. Prior to joining the bank, he was a business and financial journalist with more than two decades of experience with international newswires. Most recently, he was a resources correspondent for Bloomberg, covering the mining and energy sectors, and previously reported on a broad range of topics from economics and politics to currency and bond markets. Originally from the UK, he’s had stints working in London, New York and Singapore, but is now happily settled in Sydney.

Kriti joined Westpac in February 2023 as a business banking graduate within the Westpac Graduate Program. Prior to joining the Corporate Affairs and Community team, Kriti gained experience across three business units: Property Finance, Commercial Banking and Customer Care. She has dual degrees in arts and commerce and also worked as an educator and Student Ambassador for her university.

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