Londoners are the most “maths anxious” people in the UK. If reading this sentence sends a chill down your spine, then you’re probably one of the maths anxious people.
The term is a little puzzling – do we mean people who are actually scared of numbers? After all, people seem to be scared of anything these days. You might have seen that video on TikTok of a lady running away screaming at the sight of a jar of olives. But it means feeling anxious about using numbers and doing maths.
Fifty-eight per cent of adults in London have low numeracy, according to charity National Numeracy. This means they have the same maths skills of an 11 year old. In total, 16 million workers in the UK are believed to have low numeracy skills.
Having low numeracy affects how much money you make. There is a 3.2 per cent gap in wages between someone with low numeracy and someone with basic numeric skills. And it affects how you manage the money you make, too. People with low numeracy can struggle to pay or split bills or contrast and compare options to find better deals. During a cost-of-living crisis, this is even more of a problem.
“Over the last 6 months we’ve experienced a significant increase in those people coming to us to improve their numeracy, to in turn improve their money management”, says Sam Sims, Chief Executive of National Numeracy. With rising costs, stagnant wages, and reports of financial scams on the rise, people want to take matters into their own hands. It takes courage to do that, as maths anxiety is all about a lack of confidence in your own skills, says Sims.
And maybe it’s not a coincidence that London, the financial heart of the country, is the place where this anxiety is felt the most. Employment in sectors with workers with high numeracy is higher in London than on the national average. The capital is good at jobs that require skillfulness with numbers, like finance and insurance. But it’s also the place where the costs are the highest, where inequalities are still wide, and where people might feel less at ease to admit they don’t understand how numbers work.
For some of us, it is not as much a question of lack of capacity as of laziness – we’d rather someone else did the maths for us. Online banking platforms have sniffed an opportunity there – and a lucrative one for sure. Monzo and Revolut’s entire mission is to make life easier for you. It’s incredibly quick to open an account – these financial services pride themselves on the fact you can do it “in minutes” – and it is super easy to make transactions and transfer money.
They’re not necessarily to blame for this. According to Nilan Peiris, chief product officer of global tech company Wise, the key to the project is transparency. Wise has a comparison table on its website with the costs of international transfers from different providers – even those that are cheaper than Wise itself. Transparency helps people make the best decisions for their needs, he says. “We don’t believe you should need a PhD in analytics to avoid losing hundreds of pounds sending money abroad”, Peiris adds.
Surely, none of us needs a PhD to manage our finances – true. But a lack of opportunities – or in other cases the knowledge that we can go by without doing any maths – has made us over reliant on external providers who work the numbers for us. And this gap between our understanding and our money has consequences on our savings and our wages. So maybe it’s time we stop underestimating the problem.