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It's a Living : An Actuary's Work, Though Unknown to Many, Apparently Is Calculated Bliss

September 11, 1988|JACK SMITH

DURING AN intermission at the Los Angeles Theatre Center recently, an amiable-looking man came up to me and introduced himself. We talked. He said his name was Robert Mahan. I asked him what he did, figuring him for a lawyer or a doctor.

He smiled. "I'm an actuary," he said happily.

"I'm not sure I know what an actuary does," I said. I did know that an actuary had something to do with statistics and probabilities, but I hadn't thought of someone actually doing that sort of thing for a living.

"According to your newspaper," he said, "it's the best possible job."

A few days later, I received a Times clipping about the desirability of jobs according to "The Jobs Rated Almanac" (American References Inc., Chicago.)

It rated jobs on six criteria: salary, stress, work environment, outlook, security and physical demands. Sure enough, actuary was No. 1.

I wondered how actuary could have risen quietly to the top of the list of all jobs. How many schoolchildren, I wondered, were infused with ambition to be actuaries? Did they see role models in movies? In comic strips? In real life? Were their fathers actuaries?

According to the almanac, an actuary interprets statistics to determine expected losses because of sickness or disability and material losses from disasters. That doesn't sound very romantic or inspiring, figuring out how long the average man of 60 has to live.

As the almanac points out, though, the most amiable jobs aren't necessarily those that offer the most pay and prestige; those jobs are highly competitive and stressful.

Evidently being an actuary is easy and secure. The almanac quotes Mike Vaughan, 23, an actuary for Allstate Insurance: "I could just walk out and find a new job in a day."

After actuary, computer programmer was the top job; then computer analyst, mathematician, statistician, hospital administrator, industrial engineer, physicist, astrologer and paralegal. Doctor, lawyer and corporate executive didn't make it.

I have my doubts about the joys of being a hospital administrator: all those cranky patients; all those underpaid nurses; all those egocentric doctors; not to mention the constant specter of death and potential lawsuits.

What does a mathematician do? How is he different from a statistician or a computer analyst? Who pays him to add and subtract, divide and multiply? Isn't an actuary a mathematician?

Why is a paralegal happier than a lawyer? He can't earn as much. Is it the lack of stress and responsibility?

Physicist and astrologer sound rather rarefied. To whom does one apply for a job? Of course, now that Ron and Nancy have endorsed astrology, it might become a popular field. I suppose there is not much stress in communing with the stars.

I am not surprised that journalist is not among the top 10. I have noticed in recent movies and novels that reporters are pictured as brash, uncouth, ignorant, insensitive and dishonest. The profession of Eric Sevareid and Walter Cronkite has fallen into disrepute.

The bottom 10 on the list of 250 jobs holds some surprises. Topping that list is the supposedly glamorous job, NFL football player. I suppose an actuary could tell us that the job is too insecure: One's career is short, at best; one can be cut, traded down or injured.

Next on the way down are cowboy and lumberjack, despite their having been glamorized by Marlboro cigarettes. It's hard work and the pay is poor. Next are roustabout, dairy farmer, seaman, roofer, construction worker, fisherman and--dead last--migrant farm worker.

Of course, nobody wants to milk cows and shovel manure or pick turnips; a roustabout's life is hard and insecure. But fishing has its compensations. Said fisherman William Hermes, 62: "It's the only job I've ever wanted. You're out in the open, you're your own boss, and you don't have to answer to nobody."

I've always thought roofers and construction workers made good money. At least the ones I've paid did. Also, I should think there would be some satisfaction in building something.

Maybe seamen are poorly paid, but they get to travel, see gorgeous sunsets, and they have a girl in every port.

All things considered, I'd rather be a seaman than an actuary. And seamen don't get as much abuse as reporters.

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