IFoA president Jules Constantinou talks to Gareth Groarke about his campaign to boost the visibility of the actuarial profession, Stepping out of the shadows, and how he sees it progressing during the next few years.
Jules Constantinou's presidential address in June 2018 called for actuaries to 'step out of the shadows'. When I ask him how he sees this playing out during the next couple of years, he explains that actuaries have a great opportunity to put themselves forward.
"We are in a moment where actuaries have a key role to play in shaping the future of society and industry," he says. "First, we're seeing this proliferation of data out there - every breath you take can be recorded somewhere. Every heartbeat can be recorded somewhere. Actuaries can identify themselves as the original data scientists. We certainly need to adapt and learn how to interpret and analyse this often-unstructured data, but it is something we can do. That's the first premise.
"The second premise is really based on ageing populations, intergenerational fairness, and almost all the economic and demographic outcomes that could occur in the future. That's core to what we do. It's needs-driven - we have to step up."
So there's a collision of two trends. One is data and its associated platforms, and the technology tools that come with it; the other is a series of seemingly distinct but actually fairly interconnected social trends. Those two issues are coming together, and need actuaries to interpret them - and help guide societies, employers and governments through any challenges.
So, does Constantinou feel that the profession currently keeps itself too much to itself - and is there a risk that it will remain that way going forward, and fail to fulfil its potential?
"Both," he says. "In some respects, it's part of actuarial DNA to be more humble and reserved, to only speak up when you're the expert. That constrains us. In certain cases, though, we've seen people who've done really wonderful things with their careers and their businesses, and with the profession. We are too reticent to actually step into areas where we don't have the expert knowledge, the deep expert knowledge - and yet we probably know more than anybody else."
There's also the issue of the public's perception of actuaries. "If we asked people outside of the financial district what an actuary is, I'm not sure we'd get an informed response," he says. "However, we've done good work from a policy perspective. We are actually beginning to be recognised as a group of people who have contributions to make in answering some of the big questions, which is why we get asked to respond to consultations."
One of the other possibilities Constantinou mentioned in his address is the threat of the profession being overwhelmed by the growth of similar skillsets, such as those held by data scientists. What steps does he think we could take now to try and realise a more favourable future?
"The first step is to recognise that there is a risk. I think most people would say they see the need for actuaries in traditional areas actually shrinking. In the modern world, we can't plough alone. We have to understand where we sit within the whole spectrum of skills and industry professionals, and form alliances and collaborations that get taken forward by this wave of change. I see this as part and parcel of the work the IFoA has been doing during the past couple of years with regard to the Chartered Actuary qualification. Whether you are an Associate or a Fellow, it's about being agile and nimble and fit for the future."
We know we want to be more visible to the public; are there any other groups that Constantinou thinks actuaries need to raise their profile with?
"Employers are a key constituency for us, especially those outside of our traditional areas. If you think of accountants as people who record the past, actuaries are people who understand the past and think about the future. Why couldn't each finance department have an actuary in it to do that type of work?"
Does Constantinou think actuaries need to tailor the way they raise awareness of the profession based on the concerns of the audience they are speaking to?
"Yes," Constantinou says. "We do have a public interest responsibility, as a profession. The government has introduced auto-enrolment for retirement savings, and we should have a voice in that debate. If we believe, for example, that what the government has introduced is going to be insufficient for people to retire on, we should be saying that. I know we've started work in that area.
"I got an email a week ago from somebody saying, 'Surely we should be part of the debate around student fees and other similar topics'. These are huge undisclosed liabilities that are not really appearing anywhere in the government finances. These liabilities are an area we are exploring with the Government Actuary's Department. You're right that to raise our visibility within the community, we need to begin with these social issues. Just responding to a consultation is not going to raise awareness among the public. We must convey to the public that we have a voice, and that we have responded."
Constantinou has stated he would like to see actuaries on the boards of giant brands such as Amazon or Facebook. How would this benefit those companies?
"Well, Amazon, for example, deals with a vast amount of data. If Jeff Bezos is thinking about what his strategic and tactical options might be in the long term, actuaries could certainly help him understand the risks in many scenarios.
"There's this misconception that we're purely technical people but that does a disservice to our skillset. A large part of our training is interpreting and communicating the results of the technical work we do. It's that combination of analysis and translation that makes us such a formidable force, and could enable us to help companies and organisations navigate their businesses through challenging times.
"But it's not just about our technical skills. We're also bound by our ethical code, which begins with 'Members will act honestly and with the highest standards of integrity' - a very powerful statement to take out to people."
The conversation moves on to what actuaries can do individually to help the profession 'step out of the shadows'. "When we are asked what we do for a living, many of us are guilty of simply saying that we're 'in insurance'. We don't say: 'I'm an actuary by training. This is what I do, and this is what I add to my business through my training.'
"I think it is down to each individual. We should do a little bit more of the visiting school career fairs, that type of thing. It starts with us helping to make young people aware that this career exists and then sharing with them how fascinating, diverse and exciting it can be. Many of us have children, and we should just volunteer to go and do something like that once a year."
What advice would he give to those who are just starting out on their journey towards becoming an actuary?
"I'd say they made the right choice. What we've done from an educational perspective, thinking about Curriculum 2019 and how actuaries can reposition themselves, is very important for young people. It gives them licence now to do many things in their career. I regret not making more changes in my career as I was going along, and yet I see the opportunities now for younger actuaries to be braver and to take their skillsets into different areas."
Finally he says: "We can all play our part. Contribute to the 'I am an actuary' campaign using the #iamanactuary hashtag, and let's spread the word about how much we have to offer.''
Gareth Groarke is head of marketing and corporate communications at the IFoA