16 May is National Numeracy Day. Justin Urquhart Stewart looks at how technology may be negatively impacting our arithmetic skills and why it’s important that this changes for the population and advisers.
They say good things come in threes. The three tenors gets three beautifully blending harmonies, the three little pigs begets three little porcine beauties with a blend of DIY skills, and there lots of other trios throughout literature that have led to lots of stories ending happily ever after.
The three ‘Rs’, however, gets you just three words – only one of which actually begins with the letter R! The huge irony of this is that these three Rs are at the very heart of our educational system. It is hardly very comforting that we effectively make spelling mistakes when collectively discussing Reading, Writing and Arithmetic.
This year, National Numeracy Day hits when primary kids are labouring through SATS exams. I think we can all take heart that despite the hyperbole of the headlines about any overall results, these kids can probably abbreviate much better than the ‘system’ can. But the trio of examination week, the red letter day, and the discussions I’ve overheard that it’s not chic to be a geek got my goat – and not in the lovely way of three billy goats called Gruff.
The education system is arguably much tougher than it was in my day – mercifully I never needed to know what a ‘subordinating conjunction’ is – but all three of the Rs have arguably come increasingly under pressure as we have relied on more and more technology. Machines lull all of us, young or old, into a slackness of brain. After all who needs to read and write when I can just listen and watch, and who needs numeracy when I have a calculator?
Of course if you really want to work your way around a calculator, you still need to know your maths. And while we have all become reliant on investment platforms and automated reporting, it’s those with the best maths skills that are able to help their clients the most. This can be from simply spotting the odd computer error to quickly determining why any cash flow modelling is going awry. If your clients are also more numerously confident, they probably also wouldn’t procrastinate about their finances and go and see financial planners earlier in life. They would also probably be able to see more clearly the cost benefits of paying for professional financial advice and visit you in far greater percentages of the general population.
I have long argued that personal finance education and maths are the perfect combination. I’ve yet to meet a child who isn’t interested in money, but met many who aren’t interested in maths. Putting the two together can be a game changer because it makes something so seemingly irrelevant completely relevant. The penny can drop, quite literally.
At the dawn of civilisation, personal finance and maths did go hand in hand. From the valley of the Yangtze and the Mesopotamian green crescent of the Tigris and the Euphrates, early writing developed alongside the counting rods of the early abacus and the Chinese suanpan.
The very basis of those basic economies needed measurement not just for size and distance, but also for value, trade and of course wealth. Writing may have argued your strength, reading may have transmitted your power, but it was the numeracy that measured your power and strength. A papyrus scroll illustrated your majesty, the measure of someone’s assets proved it to all who saw.
As a nation, we are not yet taught the necessary personal financial issues that everyone needs to know. Ones that would also help our clients, and therefore our businesses. And I believe that this will only get worse. Whatever your political persuasion, a government is never going to be either a reliable or generous benefactor. As a result, it comes down to us as investors.
I regularly take time out of my week to go into schools and universities – and I could be doing more – but it’s also important in the workplace too. Only last week, my jaw nearly dropped to the seat well when my taxi driver confessed to being a full time firefighter, as well as a taxi driver two days a week. It certainly put my long days and early starts into perspective. “Credit card debts?” I asked. “Yes, and a huge mortgage on top!” he replied. If just some of those onerous interest payments could have been diverted into a personal pension, that would be another client. Now multiply that by the number of people who struggle with interest on interest payments and who don’t understand how to prioritise their finances to make the most of their money.
It makes you step back and realise that the true cost of a lack of financial education is not just hardship for my taxi driver, who is already doing more than others might. It should now be time for us all to get off our ‘Rs’ and start doing more in our communities to promote financial literacy. I’m keen to apply some (more) elbow grease and buff up our roles as ambassadors of arithmetic. I’m hoping that in turn it will highlight to people the huge range of choices available to them, and in turn mean more clients who can enjoy a healthier, wealthier life with your support and yet more happy endings.
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