Are actuaries forgetting to look out for the little guy, asks Matthew Welsh?
A phone call
Recently I got a call from a friend. He asked if I could do him a favour. I can't quote verbatim but, after the initial chitchat, it went something like this:
Do you think that you could help me with some work I have?
Well, it depends what it is exactly, but go on
You use spreadsheets in your work, right?
Yes, that's right. I use Excel for quite a bit of the work I do.
So, you're good at all that then?
Well, I don't like to brag* but, yes, I'm pretty good at it (*well, maybe I do)
Ok, great. I was wondering, could you help me automate a spreadsheet?
Of course, after talking up my skills I couldn't say no. "Ok", I said.
He was the first person to ask if I could help him in my capacity as an actuary outside of the office. Sure, people had asked what I do and then proceeded to ask "What on earth is that?", but no one had ever asked me to demonstrate my actuarial role. However, I was slightly disappointed when it turned out all he needed was a bit of Excel wizardry.
Don't get me wrong; not everyone can be expected to be financial reporting their way through life, but it rankled that he saw my professional skill as 'user of spreadsheets'. Especially as I gave him a lengthy explanation of why the Poisson distribution was such a great way to model claims.
"Why is it", I cried, "that after quite a few years of patiently explaining what it is that I do all day, people can't see past my ability to sum if?"
Seeing the trees for the wood
I believe that the answer might be that people don't see the point of actuaries. They don't see actuaries improving their day-to-day life and so there is perhaps little interest in what they actually do. We are like the Chandler character in Friends - we work in an office, with numbers. And that's it.
Of course, I believe those people to be wrong; actuaries play an important role in society. It's just that actuaries do not focus on the individual quite like they focus on the group. For example, we don't set reserves for Jeff, reserves for Mandy and reserves for George. Even at its most focused, actuarial work deals with homogenous groups. If people are 'similar enough', we lump them together.
This focus on the group before the individual could be why individuals collectively don't focus on actuaries. Similarly, consider a domestic plumber and a civil engineer who is an expert on motorway drainage. Ask people to identify the skills of these two people and I would wager the list is longer for the plumber, even though they are both hugely important to maintaining living standards for many people and, at a very basic level, work with man-made structures and water. Perhaps, because domestic plumbers focus on assisting the individual, they know what a plumber can do and, by proxy, what they can do in general.
Over to you
It may be time for actuarial students, perhaps not yet set in their ways, to challenge the way they look at the wider community. We take care of society by worrying about how trends will affect large groups and ensure that they have financial provisions where necessary. Perhaps - for the reputation of the profession, and to preserve our sanity at social occasions - we should think more about what actuaries can do for individuals.
I don't claim to have the answers, but I believe that opportunities are there that would do more to raise the profile of the profession in society than any number of conversations.
We may even end up with future generations of students grateful, when they get a call from a friend asking for a favour, that there isn't a spreadsheet in sight.
If you have ideas or suggestions for the student page, please contact Matthew Welsh at [email protected]