What I REALLY think about pensions

Last week, I had the huge privilege of taking part in a special Pensions Debate at the industry’s leading conference in Manchester.

The debate was hosted by Fiona Bruce of Question Time fame and featured me, Chris Curry of the Pensions Policy Institute (an independent charity which counts me as its youngest-ever governor!), the legendary Paul Lewis from BBC’s Moneybox, Nigel Peaple from the Pensions and Lifetime Savings Association and Sir Steve Webb, former pensions minister and now director of policy at Royal London.

It was a lively, wide-ranging but mostly good-humoured debate and was very well-received in the room on the day – both in terms of format AND content.

But I was struck by the response I received online afterwards. It was very, very different in tone to the immediate questions and feedback I received from people who actually attended the session. More on that later…

Engagement, women in pensions and the environment

Many people in the auditorium responded thoughtfully to the points I made. There was a lot of agreement with my feeling that we have to try and get young people engaging with pensions:

“I think we need to give the public more credit. Just because most people are not that great at planning their long-term finances, which I think we will agree, doesn’t mean they can’t get better and doesn’t meant they don’t want to get better. In my experience when people learn about the importance of money at whatever stage it has a transformative effect on their lives it not only clarifies their practical arrangements but gives them this enormous sense of well-being as well. We don’t grow up in a culture that prioritises personal finance we are not for the most part told by our parents, our teachers our schools our universities our workplaces even the government that personal finance, money management is a fundamental life skill that we all need to learn.

“Secondly we have these psychological tendencies that can work against us when it comes to money and this is what auto-enrolment brilliantly capitalises on but in my opinion that’s just the start of the process. And what Paul [Lewis] describes is a new world of pensions, but I don’t think we can turn the clock back. We are living in this world of pensions now where individuals are having to take greater risk and that means they have to be more informed. We simply can’t opt out of trying to educate and engage the workforce about auto-enrolment and what it means for them just because it’s hard…I come to this conference and I see the debates and I understand it’s incredibly difficult. But just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.”

I also received some applause for my passionate response to a question on women and pensions. It’s a subject I’ve started to feel very strongly about, having heard first-hand accounts of women whose state pension age was raised to 65 and now face extreme poverty.

“I’ve seen research that suggests the messages which are more effective for woman are around what the outcomes will be and generally speaking for men the messages are round the numbers, returns, projections. Now it’s not advisable to generalise too much about the genders but I think the research is showing that a varied approach is needed and that we can’t continue to use the same language that has worked before. You bring up the Waspi case, regardless of the ins and outs of the case, I think it has been absolutely dreadful for the image of the pensions industry, and those images which we saw on television of those women who were distraught at having to go and find jobs who didn’t have enough money to heat their homes, who are utterly disgusted at what happened.

I think that has been incredibly damaging to the reputation of pensions and I think we have a big job to try to win over younger women who will have a lot of empathy with those older women and will recognise they who grew up in a different time, who were in a second class of jobs, who earned less, we didn’t have the equal pay act, who have not necessarily benefited from the pensions system over that time and I think younger women will look at that and they will think well, can I trust the pension system, will it be there for me, will it work in the same way it works for men, and we need to be able to answer that question and say yes.”

I also went against type for a millennial commentator, but not without some support, by offering a more nuanced perspective on the environmental agenda in pension investing (after Extinction Rebellion’s threats to disrupt the conference were mentioned):

It is an issue for lots of young people but I think there’s a danger that we overstate how important the whole area of environmental and more widely ethical investing is to young people. The research I’ve seen suggests that what tends to motivate young people when it comes to retirement income is just knowing they will have enough.

Fiona Bruce asked whether young people might appreciate a choice “if someone said you will have enough but here are two ways of investing, in good things or bad things”. She acknowledged it was a simplification and I responded:

“Ideally we should be able to offer a spectrum, if someone wants the whiter than white pension fund they can have it, but we need a grown-up and considered conversation about what is “good”. I understand that ESG principles should underpin investment strategies right across the industry because that is about sustainable investing, not necessarily about good and bad. For instance, with NEST divesting from tobacco, the argument is not about it being the right thing to do but whether or not it will achieve the best returns for its members. If we shift the conversation too much onto the Extinction Rebellion territory, where it’s all about having a trade-off between growth and what they consider to be good for the planet, I think that could be quite dangerous.

An honest point of view

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What I hope comes across is that I try to think about these things authentically, critically and independently. I try to look at the pensions industry through the ordinary person’s lens, based on my experiences running the Young Money and talking to “real” people all the time about their finances. But I also try to balance that by keeping up with research and developments to be as well-informed as possible. I don’t want to say what I think people expect of me, nor can I purport to speak on behalf of all young people.

Sometimes, I feel I’m expected to have wisdom and knowledge well beyond my years, an especially big ask in a field as complex as pensions. But you can’t put an old head on young shoulders, nor would that be desirable. All I can do is speak for myself as honestly as possible, and in the process reflect a credible and widespread viewpoint.

Invariably we had people tweeting about the event, often quoting bits from me and others. Some tweets contained only single-word quotes from me, like “yes”.

Like most people, I have a love-hate relationship with Twitter. I understand its advantages in spreading information and making public debate more egalitarian. I love reading comments on Twitter about my latest blogs, even when people don’t agree with me. But it’s crucial to manage Twitter very carefully so it doesn’t send you round the bend. That’s because there are points where Twitter quickly turns from being an interesting (if sometimes spiky) forum into a place which brings out the absolute worst in people. I felt last Friday was one of those times in some quarters of the online pensions community…

The problem with Twitter

Some of the debate on Twitter after the event was intelligent and good-humoured. Some of it was hostile, reductive and caricatured my view. As the comedian Andrew Doyle has often said, I can’t defend comments I haven’t actually made. I’m very happy to debate pensions with people who want to discuss these issues in good faith, who keep an open mind and have heard my perspective in full. What I’m less happy to do is to debate pensions with people who are only picking up on a fraction of what I’ve said. How is it possible to talk to someone if they’re extrapolating an entire argument from a short sentence, or even a single word?

It’s not. So I don’t do it. I now have a policy of “tapping out” of online debates very quickly when it’s clear the other person has

a) made their mind up and won’t be reasoned with;

b) is trying to score points in a pointless back-and-forth that’s less about ideas, more about proving they’re always right;

c) is using straw man arguments to misrepresent what I believe.

I would have thought that people understood how Twitter works by now. We all know it doesn’t always accurately represent what people think or believe, especially when the comments are relayed by a third party.

And if we publicly shoot down in vicious, biting terms those difficult, valid ideas that the sector may not always want to hear, we risk putting off a alternative voices who have something to offer the world of pensions. Put simply, it’s just not a good look for an industry that desperately needs to build trust among a younger, more diverse constituency.

Thankfully, most people I come across in pensions recognise this. I’m seeing fantastic initiatives to try and help young people ‘get’ their long-term finances. I believe most people now working in pensions, even if there are blindspots here and there, are in it for the right reasons and want to build bridges. I’d hate to see this majority, quietly working behind the scenes, overshadowed by a vocal minority whose views either ossified in the early 1980s or, sometime during a long and hard-nosed career in finance, have lost the ability to empathise and relate to others.

I think those militant, defensive tendencies are one reason why I’m one of the few young women prepared to offer an independent, robust perspective on pensions at events and in broadcast media. Some people want a quieter life: often (like last Friday evening) I wish I could join them!

But hey. Once I had my post-conference beer and had a grumble about the nature of Twitter pile-ons to my Mum and Dad (who very kindly came to the conference to support me), I realised I can’t and won’t stop what I’m doing. Because the the part I play in this debate is mostly welcomed – and badly needed.

Let’s talk about ideas

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I don’t want to make this about Twitter (that get’s enough airtime). What I wanted to highlight was IDEAS. Ideas about pensions. Ideas about what they are to real people, what they could/should be and where we go from here.

In that respect, I was really pleased that PLSA took the risk of asking someone like me to take part in this debate. Somebody who is NOT from the pensions industry. Indeed, someone who has routinely questioned the pensions industry in the past. And above all, somebody who is young, female, self-employed and part of a new world that the pensions industry can no longer afford to ignore.

I won’t deign to respond to some of the more outlandish charges put my way (including the one that I’m a misogynist for believing that men and women might respond to different communication methods on pensions!) But I thought I would publish parts of the debate transcript so people can read what I actually said, rather than what they thought I said. Feel free to disagree, query or throw your phone/laptop out of the window. But shoot the messenger at your peril.

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