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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Good, bad and ugly

Jessica Elkin searches in vain for positive actuarial role models in the worlds of TV and film


The first time I ever heard of actuaries was at school, having spotted a booklet about the profession on a notice board. The image on the cover showed a woman looking quite pleased with herself, with a headline along the lines of ‘shhh – actuaries: the best-kept careers secret’. Ten years later and it’s still rather underground, isn’t it? (I use the word ‘underground’ to imply some edgy subculture.) You would have thought that word would spread over time and that we wouldn’t still have to fend off accusations of accountancy or thespianism anymore.

A secret ambition of mine is to write a popular drama about actuaries. You know, like Ally McBeal or ER or Mad Men, replacing lawyers, doctors or advertisers with our kind of people. Naturally, it would be really exciting and would also give what we do a lot more street cred.

Having mentioned in the last student page a few examples of where actuaries are already portrayed in the media, I got to thinking about some of the other cases that give people an idea of what the profession is like, albeit not necessarily in glowing depictions.

The depressing

About Schmidt is the obvious example of a relatively well-known actuarial character. Schmidt is a retiring actuary and, tellingly, the film poster is simply a picture of Jack Nicholson looking a depressive mess with a cloud above his head. His retirement party takes place in a brown room. None of the other actuaries notice that he is having a terrible time, because they are not emotionally well-connected, and he slinks off looking glum.

I stopped watching soon after that because I could tell it would be a very depressing film. But opinions voiced via the Society of Actuaries pointed out that in the novel on which the film is based, the central character is a New York lawyer. Curiously, in the switch from lawyer to actuary, the writers eliminated Schmidt’s torrid sexual relationship with a beautiful 20-year-old waitress. But they made sure he was numbers-obsessed and socially incompetent. Ouch!

In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray is plagued by an insurance salesman, Ned, who claims his actuarial friends ‘live and die by the actuarial tables’. I mean, he is a feature in Bill Murray’s own personal hell, describing his lame actuarial colleagues. Speaks for itself, doesn’t it?

There are others – Fight Club’s Jack works with actuarially derived premiums in an insurance company and creates an imaginary friend to pummel him out of boredom. Un Certain Monsieur Blot by Pierre Daninos features an actuary who wins the title of the most average man in France, which doesn’t even make mathematical sense. In the manga comic Homunculus, an actuary tells his friends he is going on holiday but instead goes to live in his car. Oh, and did I mention, he’s a pathological liar. What a rosy outlook.

The evil

Not all actuaries are boring or depressed, of course. Some people have sought to give a more rounded picture of the profession by including the darker side. The Batman comics feature a villain called the Actuary, who uses formulae to help the Penguin commit crimes. Alas, he’s a relatively useless villain – he isn’t even a real baddie, just a minion of another one – and ends up in prison, which is slightly disheartening. No wonder Christopher Nolan didn’t see fit to include him in The Dark Knight. Perhaps he should have tried his hand at enterprise risk management instead.

More encouragingly, the Canadian TV drama series The Collector features one actuary who uses power from the Devil to assist the mob in wiping out its opposition by predicting details about its enemies. Haunting!

But fear not, fellow students!  It’s not all bad. There is always Terry Pratchett’s Twoflower, played by Sean Astin in one TV adaptation of The Colour of Magic. He is an actuary and Discworld’s first tourist – clearly, an adventurous, go-getting type of man. He even wears a Hawaiian shirt. This is what we should be aiming for! Of course, he is also portrayed as a bit dim and hugely naive, but he does introduce the concepts of ‘echo-gnomics’ and ‘inn-sewer-ants’ to the city of Ankh-Morpork. A pioneer.

I’m not trying to depress you. It’s a shame that there are so few really positive images of actuaries, but at least there are some. Maybe stick a relevant film on the next time your mates come round, or send some interesting literature or comic books to relatives for Christmas. It might not sell the profession as well as it could, but it would be nice if one day someone worked out what it is that we do! In the meantime, look out for actuaries on primetime TV.