The annual Festival of Financial Planning – aka Financial Planning Week – kicks off on Monday, as the 17th instalment in a campaign by the Financial Planning Association and its members to raise awareness and trust in the industry and its services.

The industry may not need a lot of awareness-raising activities just at the moment, what with the success the nation’s largest financial institutions and sundry individuals have enjoyed in keeping it front-and-centre in newspapers, websites and TV news bulletins. But it could do with a few activities that restore trust.

It’s well known – to people within the industry, anyway – that there are benefits both tangible and intangible for people who use a planner’s services: those with a plan feel better about and more in control of their finances; financial wellbeing has a direct and measurable impact on an individual’s overall wellbeing, both physical and mental; people who have a well-structured plan and a good, ongoing relationship with a planner are more likely to stick to that plan, and those who stick to a plan are likely to accumulate more in savings and retire better than they would have done otherwise.

What’s not to like about all of that? Problem is, it seems the message is not getting through and that’s what Financial Planning Week is designed to address.

Earlier this year, during the FPA’s roadshows – and again last week, at the Professional Planner/FPA Best Practice Forum – FPA chief Dante De Gori quoted figures showing that the number of people using financial planners has fallen over the past five years.

De Gori was quoting numbers from the research firm Investment Trends – specifically, the Financial Advice Report, based on Investment Trends’ survey of 11,234 Australian adults which found that 2.3 million Australians used a financial planner in 2016, down from 2.7 million in 2011.

The excellent demographics website .id builds on Australian Bureau of Statistics data to analyse the Australian population. It says that in 2011 the usual resident population of Australia was 21.5 million and by 2016 the number had grown to 23.4 million. About five million people were aged under 18 in 2011, and about 5.2 million in 2016, leaving adult populations of 16.5 million in 2011 and 18.2 million in 2016.

If we take the Investment Trends results and apply them to these figures, about 16 per cent of the adult population used a financial planner in 2011 and the figure had fallen to about 13 per cent in 2016.

Both of those numbers are well below the regularly quoted 20 per cent figure and a mile away from the occasionally seen two-in-five estimate. Both of those estimates are pretty well discredited and can safely be discarded.

The bigger picture issue here is that even though the population is growing and ageing, the penetration of financial planning is declining. That is deeply worrying, for a number of reasons – least of all the wellbeing of the financial planning industry itself. If a shrinking proportion of an ageing population is seeking advice, then one may assume that a growing number of people are not achieving the sorts of financial (including retirement) goals they aspire to. This is a public interest issue (and if only there were a financial planning profession to address the public interest!).

If Financial Planning Week is going to make a real difference rather than just make practitioners feel good about themselves, then it needs to address the issues that turn people away from using those same practitioners’ services.

Last year the FPA invited the public to dare to dream. The slogan the it has chosen for the 2017 festival takes this a step further and invites the public to live the dream. It’s a good place to start. There could be a number of reasons that stop people from going to see a planner. Some are obvious and well worn and some offer new insights.

Among the obvious ones, of course, are the ongoing issues emanating from institutions and their licensees, which serve to create a negative perception of financial planners and the services they offer. Nothing new there.

But what if there’s something else at play, too?

An idea came up during the recent Financial Services Council (FSC) national conference when the venture capital and fintech investor Phillip Kingston suggested one of the reasons younger people in particular are not engaged with superannuation is because everything’s going pretty well, really.

“We as young people have the ability to see that it’s probably going to be OK,” Kingston said.

“When Keating and Co were bringing superannuation in, there was no sense of what it would be like when you were retiring. It was kind of like venturing out into the unknown: this money vanishes every month and I have to assume that’s a good thing.

“But now you can see that people are retiring, they’re still alive and it hasn’t blown up. Maybe we can let it run. With that comes complacency and disengagement.”

It’s a thought, isn’t it? Even if it’s only one factor in many, it’s a factor that needs to be considered. And while it may not explain everything, it looks like a convenient excuse not to seek professional advice.

What if Kingston’s view holds true for a growing number of people, who have now been in the superannuation system for 20-odd years, are accumulating savings at a reasonable, if not breakneck, pace, and can see their retirement accounts building steadily? In that situation, it’s easy to imagine conversations taking place at home: our super’s going OK (especially if both partners are working), we’re paying off the mortgage as best we can, we’re paying off the kids’ school fees and whatever other commitments we have; what could a financial planner ever do for us?

(“All right, but apart from budgeting, cash flow, estate planning, insurance, asset allocation, investment implementation, tax planning, SMSFs and aged care advice, what could financial planners ever do for us?”)

Whether or not Financial Planning Week has had a beneficial long-term impact on trust in financial planners is still not clear. It hasn’t done in the past five years – we can see the decline in the use of financial planners.

But that’s not to say it isn’t an important part of the mix, in an environment where things are heading in quite a different direction to where they were five or six years ago.

More and more people will face up to retirement and decide they really need some help. The development and introduction of higher education and professional and ethical standards will begin to create a different perception of the industry and its practitioners, making it more likely help will be sought. Maybe some of the institutions will have sorted out their financial planning strategies by then, and either cleaned them up or exited.

By the time Financial Planning Week XXII rolls around, five years from now, let’s hope we’re able to write that at least two in 10 people use financial planners – and that we have the data to actually back that up.

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