Lesley Alexander: Do pensions require a radical re-think?

I am taking over the presidency of the Pensions Management Institute (PMI) against a backdrop of a global pandemic and the potential of further restrictions to our personal freedoms as we face a second wave of the Covid-19 virus.

It seems a lifetime ago, not a year ago, since I chaired our annual Defined Contribution (DC) Symposium in London in a room full of people keen to improve the outcomes of people in workplace pension schemes. Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the lived experiences of people day-to-day are very varied, both socially and financially. The same can be said of everyone who works in the retirement savings industry and every customer.

Positive move to new normal
On one level, I am encouraged by the way we have adapted to the new normal of digital by default. Naturally, for some third-party administrators and providers with large customer service centres, there were initial teething problems in having those staff work from home. While normal service in some areas has not yet resumed, there have been no major problems and systems have been flexible and resilient enough to ensure that employees and customers can get the information they want. Thus far, pensioners appear to have been paid their monthly pensions without interruption.

The PMI, which was already on a journey to transfer all of its qualifications online, found that the pandemic accelerated the digitisation process. By the end of this year, all examinations will now be digital. For me, meeting my colleagues and delivering seminars online via Teams, Zoom, Bright Talk or some other platform now epitomises my normal working day. Amid the mounting enquiries about pensions and requests for early retirement, especially from those who have been furloughed or made redundant, we must acknowledge each individual circumstance, while, at the same time, remaining on our guard for scammers, as we know that there has already been an increase in financial fraud during this period.

Focus on attitude to the natural world
At a global level, Covid-19 has brought the actions and attitude of humanity into sharp focus. Anyone who has watched climate change documentaries on television or online will realise that the likelihood of global pandemics is more frequent, as our ruthless exploitation of the natural world brings us closer and closer to environments we are unfamiliar with.

We must learn the lessons of Covid-19. To bring about real change, pension scheme trustees and
workplace pension providers must step up to make their environmental, social and governance (ESG) policies actionable and measurable, as the latest consultation from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) envisages. As individuals, we can feel powerless in the face of pandemics, climate change, a struggling global economy and our own day-to-day challenges, however small. We can, and we must, act collectively for the common good to make people’s lives better.

It is not enough to not do the wrong thing; we must actively do the right thing. We wonder why savers are disaffected and disengaged from their pensions. I suggest it is because we have failed to capture their imagination and help them connect their own pension savings to the vital stake that they have in creating the society they want to live in. We need a radical re-think.

Lesley Alexander is president of the Pensions Management Institute