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25 Years Ago in The Actuarial Review

by Walter C. Wright

The following is an excerpt from Norman J. Bennett's "Maunderings" column from 25 years ago. We have two questions for our current readers: Do you agree with Norm's conclusion? Is there a humorist among you who would volunteer to follow in Norm's footsteps?

August 1979 AR

American business is increasingly concerned with [the obsolescence of professionals]. Current estimates are that five years out of college an engineer may be obsolete. A recent study suggested that 20 percent of a professional's working day ought to be spent keeping up to date.

Considering our own field, I conjectured about a rather harsh test. I imagined a man fully qualified in the actuarial profession who retired and left the field in 1935. I arranged to have him reincarnated next month with his 42 year-old training intact, with his mind as sharp as that of a new young Fellow, and then I wondered about the time necessary to make him a fully functioning 1977 actuary.

Interestingly enough, I am told that if I had chosen a chemist instead of an actuary for this test, there would be no doubt of the outcome. His obsolescence would be close to 100 % and the retraining period would be the same as the training period for a 1977 apprentice....

My conclusions in applying the test of obsolescence are depressing. The bright reincarnate from the depression years could use a couple of weeks at Poughkeepsie, two or three sessions as an observer of ISO Actuarial Committees, lunch with an accountant and one or two regulators, and he would soon fit smoothly back into the profession. In six months, save for his rather old-fashioned looking suits, he would scarcely be distinguishable from Harvey Tackaberry.

When I glance over at my neat set of the Proceedings, I am appalled conclusion. There is no way that our embodiment of the past could master in such a short period the negative binomial, Bayesian credibility, nonlinear retrospective rating, and the dozens of esoteric projects that have engaged the attention of successive waves of bright young actuaries through the years and technically become part of our heritage.

I might be even more appalled if I were to discover that he needn't bother doing so. Suppose, for example, I were to hand him a copy of the Stanford Research Institute's report on classification....Following one or two questions on definitions, I suspect he would announce that even with his antique knowledge he understood it thoroughly—whether he agreed with it or not.

He would have uncovered, it appears, our dual personalities as actuaries: the first covets academic robes, erudition, and colloquies; the second pays obeisance to a pragmatic world that rarely lets the first out of its blue buckram volumes. He would find, in other words, that if he wanted to read about the negative binomial for pleasure he was welcome to. If he didn't, the actuarial world wouldn't notice.