The balance of life is, in the ripe and ruined

I was born in 1979, the same year that the Soviet Republic invaded Afghanistan, Michael Jackson released ‘Off the Wall’ and 63 Americans were taken hostage at their embassy in Tehran.

This made me a child of the 80s, a teenager of the 90s and a young adult of the noughties.

Each of those decades are distant history. I’ve obviously got no memory of the 70s and my memories of the 80s can be best described as ‘fuzzy’.

Even a time as recent as the 90s is starting to feel like a very, very long time ago. This was, after all, the decade that brought us grunge, rave and hip hop music. That same Soviet Union who boldly invaded Afghanistan during the year of my birth was dissolved following a thawing of a decades old Cold War.

It’s all history now, regardless. I’m a fan of history, electing to study it for one of my A Levels (in the 90s) and delving deep into the Age of Discovery. Even now I can spend hours happily reading about Dias, da Gama and Magellan.

But the past is the past. We can (and should) learn from it. There is little sense in dwelling on it or even living there. If I was a teenage girl I would probably be sharing a motivational poster on Pinterest at this point saying something like ‘yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift – that’s why it’s called the present’. But I’m not. So I won’t.

Instead, I wanted to contrast and compare the two big conferences I’ve been to this year.

Last month was the Institute of Financial Planning (IFP) Annual Conference in Newport. It was exceptional. Everything from the venue, speakers and delegates were top-notch. It was my first visit to the IFP Conference and the experience certainly lived up to the hype. I will be going back for more.

And then today I attended the Personal Finance Society (PFS) National Conference.

Now I’m entirely neutral when it comes to the IFP and PFS. I’m a CFP with the former and, following some recent exam passes, a Fellow with the latter. I elect to receive my Statement of Professional Standing from the PFS and I promote Chartered status just as proudly as my CFP certification, possibly even more so thinking about the various marketing activities where professional titles are presented.

But something about the PFS National Conference today didn’t sit comfortably with me.

I don’t know if it was the venue. Newport and Birmingham are probably comparable in terms of salubriousness, with Birmingham (where I was born all the way back in 1979) having the edge when it comes to convoluted road layouts.

There were many more delegates at the PFS Conference compared to the IFP Conference. At a rough estimate, it felt like at least four times as many. I guess that’s what happens when you make a conference ‘free’.

The exhibition hall was much larger at the PFS Conference, with many more product and fund providers there to sell their wares.

And the PFS Conference attracted some great names – starting the day by seeing Justin Urquhart Stewart, Paul Lewis and Stephanie Flanders in full flow is a good way to start a day, in my opinion.

But it all felt very ‘old school’.

Whereas the IFP Conference featured lots of thinking about the future and inspiration, in both personal and business terms, the PFS Conference felt focused on the past. Paul Lewis and his diatribe on pension misselling set the tone for the rest of the day, with an estimated 9 in 10 conversations I overheard consisting of grumbles on this keynote address.

The energy which was ever-present in Newport was harder to find in Birmingham. That energy was there, but you really had to go looking for it.

Clearly it’s a different audience.

It’s easy to forget that, until a decade ago, the PFS was two different professional bodies; the Life Insurance Association and the Society of Financial Advisers. The bulk of PFS members from that merger, to the best of my recollection, came from the LIA. Judging by appearances, conversations and atmosphere today, a fair few would quite like to still be members of that illustrious organisation.

Maybe there’s a place for the more sales oriented, product and technical, formal side of the retail financial services sector. It’s certainly done in a very professional way. I get the impression that the PFS is making great strides to progress and ease the profession into the 21st century, despite some resistance from an old guard who still quite like the old days.

As one of my favourite musicians, Alt-J, have to say, like all good fruit, the balance of life is, in the ripe and ruined. That’s not to suggest that many older PFS members are the ruined, but that balance is essential in all things. The IFP and PFS are very different animals, with different memberships (despite a large crossover who share membership of both, as I do) and very similar goals for the profession.

It will be interesting to see how their respective annual conferences evolve in the future to take account of changing needs and attitudes of their members.