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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Student page: Mind the gap

Where I work, the average age of actuarial staff can’t be far north of 30. I enjoy working for the young partners, those perhaps better placed to identify with my views. Working for the senior partners is fine too but I can’t help wondering if I engage them on a different level — a question that inspired me to write this article.

Let’s first define the term ‘generation gap’. With age, I expect my desire to go to nightclubs will decrease, whereas my desire to wear slippers and eat bread and butter pudding will increase. However, I won’t wake up one day and find myself offended by Elvis — and that’s the point. A generation gap isn’t about differences in behaviours more commonly associated with certain ages than others, like my parents’ preference for a Sunday spent at the garden centre. A generation gap is really about differences in values and sensibilities that differentiate ourselves from our parents, grandparents and our great grandparents; changes in customs and practises that distinguish one ‘cohort’ (actuarially speaking) from another. Consider gender roles, xenophobia, promiscuity and suffrage: the differences between the norms of today and a century ago are wholesale.

An actuary’s typical day will today be pronouncedly different to 30 years ago. Older actuaries may recall many hours spent deriving assurance and annuity tables from scratch. Advances in computing, enjoyed by the younger generation, mean much of the maths grind is outsourced these days. Automating repetitive calculations should benefit everyone; the modern actuary has time to stress-test more scenarios, which should ultimately improve the results relayed to stakeholders and clients.

To claim computing aids are a bad thing is crass. However, for the younger generation, reared on a diet of macros, has the advent of IT fostered a skills gap? All the number-crunching suffered by older actuaries in their formative years may have seemed like a chore at the time but prolonged exposure to factor tables might have nurtured a familiarity with compound interest, allowing them to better sense-check results today. Are we subliminally missing out on skills that will come back to haunt us as qualifieds? I’d counter that today’s graduates are better equipped to develop than our seniors but it remains humble and gainful to appreciate how actuaries once cut their teeth.

In the pensions consulting world, the client is often a trustee. It is a challenge for a young person to advise an older trustee and be assured but not over-confident, authoritative but not patronising. Acknowledging the perspective of an older generation can assist in this. What a colleague would see as humour, a client might perceive as flippancy. Being yourself is laudable but playing social chameleon to make the right impression with a client is beyond reproach. The young and old are mutually responsible for recognising and bridging generational differences but where clients are concerned, it is their prerogative to expect and our duty to adapt. They’re paying us after all!

In conclusion, an awareness of the generation gap is something that can probably help us in our actuarial careers. But provided we’re conscious of it, it’s nothing to lose sleep over.

Peter Norman is an actuarial consultant at Lane, Clark & Peacock

Jen comments: The younger actuarial generation can’t be far north of 30, and the older generation not far south of 50. Which leaves one rather mysterious, unsettling gap. Where have all the middle-aged actuaries gone? Gone to start their own consultancies, every one? Where have all the middle aged actuaries gone? Taken actuarial husbands and wives, every one? When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?

Jean comments: I’m sure there are many student actuaries out there who believe that actuarial talks and events are full of ‘boring old actuaries’. This perception means that there is a sense of apathy in the younger generation, a feeling that everything is being taken care of by ‘the elders’. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are more actuarial graduates starting out their actuarial career with exemptions from some of the professional exams provoking a feeling among some of those who began from scratch that these actuarial graduates have no real actuarial knowledge, and have somehow ‘cheated’ their way into the profession.

The truth of the matter is the profession is constantly evolving and changing. The figureheads of the profession tend to be actuaries of the older generation, but pretty soon it will be the younger actuaries moving up the ladder, into positions of actuarial power and influence. To survive, the profession needs to embrace change and adapt with it.

My message to the critics of actuarial degrees is: do not doubt the theoretical knowledge a good actuarial graduate will have. Having this knowledge as a base means they can focus on learning business and practical work skills while applying the theory they have learnt in practice.

My message to student actuaries and younger-generation actuaries out there is: remember — it’s your profession as well. If there are ways in which you think the profession can be improved, speak up. Air your views and help the profession to evolve the way you want it to. As Mahatma Ghandi once said: “You must be the change you want to see…” So what are you waiting for? Begin the evolution.

Did you know…?
The split of ST3 into two separate Specialist Technical exams is being delayed until 2010. Look for more details about these changes on the Education Noticeboard.