Gross National Unhappiness

Sarkozy and Stiglitz say we should measure well-being instead of GDP. Bhutan shows how it can all go

Who could be against defining a nation's success by its level of happiness? Much more feel-good than grubby old GDP, especially in times when there's less of the P to go around. This is what President Sarkozy of France is now urging, after taking delivery of a report by two Nobel Prize-winning economists, Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen.

But the auguries are not good. The country that famously already runs on these lines, Bhutan, is far from happy. In fact, as this report in the Independent shows, it has recently been suffering a spate of suicides.

The more obvious objection, however, is just how woolly Gross National Happiness is as a measure. Who decides what counts as happiness, and what happens when one person's pleasure causes another's pain? This applies in numerous ways to religion. Just the other night I was watching Sepet, a film by the much-missed Malaysian film director Yasmin Ahmad, in which Orked, the Malay female lead, meets her Chinese boyfriend in a cafe. As she passes the chef chopping up crispy pork, poor Orked looks as if she's been stung by a wasp. She's a Muslim, he's Taoist. An essential pleasure for him is anathema to her. More generally, any kind of felicific calculus, as Jeremy Bentham titled his formula for quantifying pain and pleasure, is going to have problems recognising the value of actions and experiences relating to religion or, for that matter, attacks on religion.

Much as utilitarianism appeals, I've found it difficult to take these attempts to weave it into governmental programmes seriously since going to a talk that our own "happiness tsar", Richard Layard, gave at the Palace of Westminster. When I raised the question of how elitism and higher pleasures fitted in with his theories, he gave me a very cold look. Enough said. Any attempt to enliven the "dismal science", as Carlyle called economics, is to be welcomed. But discussions of happiness all too often start off vague and swiftly head towards vacuity.

Let's see how much we hear about Sarkozy's grand new plan a few months down the line.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Stability is essential to solve the pension problem

The new chancellor must ensure we have a period of stability for pension policymaking in order for everyone to acclimatise to a new era of personal responsibility in retirement, says 

There was a time when retirement seemed to take care of itself. It was normal to work, retire and then receive the state pension plus a company final salary pension, often a fairly generous figure, which also paid out to a spouse or partner on death.

That normality simply doesn’t exist for most people in 2016. There is much less certainty on what retirement looks like. The genesis of these experiences also starts much earlier. As final salary schemes fall out of favour, the UK is reaching a tipping point where savings in ‘defined contribution’ pension schemes become the most prevalent form of traditional retirement saving.

Saving for a ‘pension’ can mean a multitude of different things and the way your savings are organised can make a big difference to whether or not you are able to do what you planned in your later life – and also how your money is treated once you die.

George Osborne established a place for himself in the canon of personal savings policy through the introduction of ‘freedom and choice’ in pensions in 2015. This changed the rules dramatically, and gave pension income a level of public interest it had never seen before. Effectively the policymakers changed the rules, left the ring and took the ropes with them as we entered a new era of personal responsibility in retirement.

But what difference has that made? Have people changed their plans as a result, and what does 'normal' for retirement income look like now?

Old Mutual Wealth has just released. with YouGov, its third detailed survey of how people in the UK are planning their income needs in retirement. What is becoming clear is that 'normal' looks nothing like it did before. People have adjusted and are operating according to a new normal.

In the new normal, people are reliant on multiple sources of income in retirement, including actively using their home, as more people anticipate downsizing to provide some income. 24 per cent of future retirees have said they would consider releasing value from their home in one way or another.

In the new normal, working beyond your state pension age is no longer seen as drudgery. With increasing longevity, the appeal of keeping busy with work has grown. Almost one-third of future retirees are expecting work to provide some of their income in retirement, with just under half suggesting one of the reasons for doing so would be to maintain social interaction.

The new normal means less binary decision-making. Each choice an individual makes along the way becomes critical, and the answers themselves are less obvious. How do you best invest your savings? Where is the best place for a rainy day fund? How do you want to take income in the future and what happens to your assets when you die?

 An abundance of choices to provide answers to the above questions is good, but too much choice can paralyse decision-making. The new normal requires a plan earlier in life.

All the while, policymakers have continued to give people plenty of things to think about. In the past 12 months alone, the previous chancellor deliberated over whether – and how – to cut pension tax relief for higher earners. The ‘pensions-ISA’ system was mooted as the culmination of a project to hand savers complete control over their retirement savings, while also providing a welcome boost to Treasury coffers in the short term.

During her time as pensions minister, Baroness Altmann voiced her support for the current system of taxing pension income, rather than contributions, indicating a split between the DWP and HM Treasury on the matter. Baroness Altmann’s replacement at the DWP is Richard Harrington. It remains to be seen how much influence he will have and on what side of the camp he sits regarding taxing pensions.

Meanwhile, Philip Hammond has entered the Treasury while our new Prime Minister calls for greater unity. Following a tumultuous time for pensions, a change in tone towards greater unity and cross-department collaboration would be very welcome.

In order for everyone to acclimatise properly to the new normal, the new chancellor should commit to a return to a longer-term, strategic approach to pensions policymaking, enabling all parties, from regulators and providers to customers, to make decisions with confidence that the landscape will not continue to shift as fundamentally as it has in recent times.

Steven Levin is CEO of investment platforms at Old Mutual Wealth.

To view all of Old Mutual Wealth’s retirement reports, visit: products-and-investments/ pensions/pensions2015/