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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Party on?

How many times have you been asked at a party what you do for a living and decided that lying was the simplest option for your reply? Even if the person thinks they know what an actuary does, the limit of their knowledge usually boils down to one of the following reactions:u you had to take a lot of exams, then...u you must be very clever...u er, something to do with insurance and pensions...Really on-the-ball, financially aware people might even say, ‘you’ve got a FTSE index named after you, haven’t you?’ None of these responses gives you much of a conversation boost, however, and you will soon be left in a room alone and all the other guests will be in the kitchen avoiding you.What the profession needs is something to give our public persona a boost. Several opportunities have come and gone in recent times: pensions mis-selling, orphan assets in with-profits funds, stakeholder pensions, the general lack of pension provision, mortgage endowment shortfalls. The list goes on and there are no doubt more to come. Where is the actuarial profession when it comes to comment? Probably passing on shadowy comment within itself rather than to the outside world. Many working parties were no doubt convened and technical papers presented to the Faculty and Institute so that at least members could be kept well informed.Should the profession spend more time communicating with the outside world? At least it cannot mire itself in controversy if it maintains a silence. However, it is easy for other commentators to claim to be pensions and insurance experts and get their thoughts into print. There is no doubting that the profession is admired for its knowledge and expertise in the financial world, but it is always so slow in responding to the changing world. By the time a working party has arrived at a conclusion, does anybody want to listen? Modern society, with instant information exchange through new media, is no place for reticence and slow reactions. Without faster response times, the profession is in danger of being left behind. Setting up the Faculty and Institute website does not do enough to pass on the combined knowledge of the profession to the right people.But why is it necessary to have a higher public profile? Without any public awareness it is too easy to become expendable down the line. Unlike lawyers and accountants, actuaries are not left unscathed by recessions. The accountancy firms already realise that their work is changing and there is no reason not to take some actuarial work away from actuarial firms. Our cosy world is being threatened by several conspiring factors, including the shrinking number of financial services companies, professional invasion from others, and increases in computing capability.The profession must adapt to survive, as the veils of mystery covering our work are blown away either with or without our help. Wider fields must be embraced with open arms or we will be left with too small a niche market. What will happen to the apparently buoyant employment situation when redress for pensions mis-selling is finally over and we are left with fewer and fewer financial services employers? The picture will not be so bright a few years down the road, and there is no ‘may’ about this statement.So this brings me back to my point about profile. If nobody knows what we do and therefore what we can potentially do for them, then we are almost certainly destined for a future of repetitive valuations and little else. The profession needs to help its own expansion by reacting more rapidly and more publicly to events that are relevant to society, such as pensions shortfalls and genetic testing by insurers. Above and beyond this we must predict change and lead thinking down a sensible route and thus create work for ourselves. Not only will the profession become more useful to society, but more of us will have more interesting and challenging jobs.At the very least I will be able to hold my head up high at parties and say that I am an actuary. No longer will I have to explain that I haven’t appeared in the West End or been in any soaps – and I did not say I was an actor!