Linda Torn has better view of future prospects thanks to National ThinkTank
Linda Torn, a Master’s degree student in Econometrics, interrupted her studies to devote four months to an urgent societal problem. As one of twenty young academics from many different backgrounds she joined the National ThinkTank. Together they considered the question “How can we improve the well-being, welfare, and resilience of the middle classes?” Taking part in the ThinkTank has helped her gain a clearer perspective on her future. “My perfect job is one that allows me to combine my analytical strengths with my social skills.”
The interview with Linda comes at a time when her participation in the National ThinkTank ended a month previously and she returned to her studies. She has just started her graduate internship at Deloitte’s, where she will engage in machine learning. “It’s not something I have a great deal of experience in, so this internship is well outside my comfort zone. But I am eager to learn more.”
Contributing to society
It seems to be something of a habit for you, stepping outside your comfort zone. We spoke earlier, when you were a student member of the TiSEM Management Team. And next thing you know, you’re on the National ThinkTank for four months. Quite the adventure, I’d say. What made you decide to go for it?
Linda: “It is true that I’m always looking for new experiences, experiences that challenge me and tap into my learning potential. At the start of my Master’s program, I found myself grappling for a while with the question of what I wanted to do after graduating. I just didn’t think of myself as an econometrist sitting behind a computer making mathematical calculations all day. I wanted an opportunity to look beyond the math that is the main focus of my studies. I missed the connection with society. How could I have impact, contribute to society? A friend had drawn my attention to the National ThinkTank, and when I looked into it, I very quickly realized that this was exactly what I had been looking for! I was prepared to delay graduation by six months just to experience what it is like to approach complex issues from a ‘soft’ angle and to see if I could do my bit using my knowledge and skills.”
I’m always looking for new experiences
Do you miss that societal dimension in your studies?
Linda: “The solid mathematical basis of the Econometrics degree program leaves little room for ‘Understandig Society’. We are of course presented with several societal issues, for example in the Improving Society Lab course, but we always approach these problems from a figures-based perspective. In the National ThinkTank, societal issues are approached from a variety of perspectives.”
The middle-class crunch
The National ThinkTank 2020 theme was “How can we improve the well-being, welfare, and resilience of the middle classes in urban and regional areas, now and in future?” Was this theme another reason for you to apply?
Linda: “Yes, it spoke to me right away, precisely because it is a theme that is at a far remove from my studies. It’s about sociological, societal notions as well as about topics that interest me: the housing market, the job market, but also financial control and feelings of social exclusion. What intrigues me are the problems the middle classes face. An increasing number of people are finding it hard to keep up in society. Achievements that previous generations took for granted – educational qualifications, a permanent job, home ownership – today are often not within easy reach for many. My parents are middle-class and in some regards I see it’s a struggle for them, too. And although I myself do not belong to that middle class, I do share their challenges on the housing market: for me as a starter it is virtually impossible to buy a house.
An increasing number of people are finding it hard to keep up in society
Here’s a quote from the final report: “As ThinkTank participants we ourselves are sometimes out of touch with that reality. In the course of our investigations, it would occasionally become painfully clear how we as university graduates with all the opportunities that offers us also belong to a society that has lost sight of the middle.” In other words, a band of students who are in a bubble of their own attempts to solve the problems of people that live in a different bubble. How did you deal with the risk posed by separate bubbles?
Linda: “We were surrounded by eleven expert participants, people who themselves belong to the middle classes: a freelancer, a nurse, people with only senior secondary vocational education (mbo). We met with them often and at every presentation they were there to give feedback. In the initial phase, the analytical phase, we also spoke with people we met in the street. In several cities throughout the country, we directly asked people how they were doing and what they thought of the Netherlands. Their first response was often ‘Fine, I’m doing okay’, but when we persisted with our questions, they would more often than not change their tune. Mostly, the drift of it was, to quote the title of Paul Schnabel’s book: ‘I’m fine, but we’re not.’”
Creating bubbles is a major hazard to society
What did you find?
Linda: “In the analytical phase we concluded that it is the creation of bubbles you just referred to that is one of the main hazards society as a whole faces today. In the past, Dutch society was fragmented along certain ideological, often religious, fault lines (verzuiling), and the resulting ‘pillars’ would accommodate people from a range of stations in life. In church, the banker and the baker would be in the same pew, as would the Member of Parliament and the nurse. Politicians would serve the interests of the pillar as a whole; connections were vertical. Today’s bubbles consist of people who share a way of life, who have similar socio-cultural and socio-economic backgrounds, and who constantly confirm each other in their ideas and behavior. That bubble exists as much online as it does offline. In the Netherlands, the bubble is particularly strong on the level of education. Highly educated people and less highly educated people form two distinct groups that are almost completely unconnected. At one point in our ThinkTank group we did an experiment: check your phone for the 50 most recent calls you made and ask yourself how many of these calls were with mbo-trained people. In all cases, it was never more than two to three callers who fit that profile. The government mostly employs highly educated people with live in the Randstad (urban megaregion), and among policymakers, too, the number of highly educated people is climbing. The middle classes do not feel represented by those who work in politics.”
The New Polder
Which solution did you arrive at?
Linda: “I was in the group that studied feelings of social exclusion, and we came up with the ‘New Polder’ concept. We identified a lack of opportunities to participate, of ways to have a say in public governance. Sure, some cities organize public consultation evenings, but these meetings are organized by highly educated people to a format they are comfortable with – inform, argue, debate – but which less highly educated people experience as uncomfortable and even intimidating. Besides, actual citizen participation in decision-making only happens at 3% of all such public consultation evenings. Given that the various societal groups inhabit bubbles whose views and interests are diametrically opposed, the old polder model no longer works.”
The old polder model no longer works
“The New Polder seeks to make citizens’ consultation and participation the default. We have designed a framework of six preconditions that must be in place for a sound participation project to enable everyone to participate and to ensure a true participation culture is created. Everyone who wants to participate can do so and will feel heard.”
In the near future, the ThinkTank participants will put flesh of the bones of the solutions they have proposed, working with the network of experts and partners they have built. Linda, too, is committed to this next phase, but for now her graduation internship takes priority.
Knowledge, skills, and character
Were you able to use the knowledge and skills you acquired during your studies?
Linda: “One of the main strengths of a degree program in Econometrics is its ability to teach students to structure a very complex problem. In the ThinkTank, I was in a group that included two philosophers and a lawyer. The philosophers were very good at getting to the essence: what is the real problem? As an econometrist I was able to contribute through pragmatism, structure, and supporting figures.”
My perfect job is one that allows me to combine my analytical strengths with my social skills
What was the takeaway from the ThinkTank for you? Did it answer your question which direction you want to take after graduating?
Linda: “Yes! I had grown slightly tired of math during my studies, but following my time on the ThinkTank I actually started missing it. So now, through my internship, I want to become more adept at programming. My perfect job is one that allows me to combine my analytical strengths with my social skills. And one, I hope, that addresses socio-economic issues.”
Would you recommend students at Tilburg University to apply to the ThinkTank?
Linda: “I’m all for it! It would benefit not only students themselves, but certainly also the ThinkTank to enlist students from Tilburg. There’s a surplus of people from the Dutch Randstand on the ThinkTank and their take on certain issues tends to be different from that of those who live outside the Randstad. The Randstad is its own bubble! I grew up in The Hague and ever since I have lived and studied in Tilburg, I have noticed how people within and outside the Randstad often have different perspectives. My advice to students would indeed be to apply to the National ThinkTank! It really has added value. And it is such an excellent fit with a university whose motto is ‘Understanding society’ and that seeks to inspire students through knowledge, skills, and character to make a difference in society!”
Interested in participating in the National ThinkTank?
The information evenings are on March 16 and 24, 2021, and on April 6, 2021 a Q&A will be hosted.