Why don't we save? Because we don't have the money

The biggest reason for a failure to contribute to pension plans is not having the money to do so.

Aviva, the insurance firm, has released its second Working Lives report, analysing the sort of benefits businesses give their employees. One particular passage jumped out at me:

Almost half (45%) of employees who do not contribute to a scheme they are offered say they simply cannot afford it, 19% are repaying debts and 17% are saving for other things. Of interest, the number of workers who say they cannot afford to pay into a scheme has dropped 10 percentage points from 55% (Q2 2012) which suggests that while general finances remain tight, retirement saving is becoming more of a consideration.

The problem that Britons don't save for retirement plagues public policy, and novel solutions are forever being proposed. For instance, one of the responses to this report, from ILC-UK, called for Government and the pensions industry to "work together to develop and promote a savings rule of thumb similar to the ‘5-a-day’ healthy eating message."

But if Government needs to do one thing to boost the number of Brits saving for retirement, it's pretty clear that that one thing ought to be aiming to increase the incomes — or at least, the disposable income — of the poorest 45 per cent of the country. It's not a lack of responsibility that prevents them saving, it's a simple lack of funds.

(It's similarly not a lack of responsibility that a 19 per cent of employees decide to pay off debts rather than save in a pension; saving when you have interest-bearing debts is, as a rule of thumb, a stupid thing to do)

Those figures also only count for employees with a workplace pension scheme, an increasingly rare situation to be in. Such schemes typically involve employer matching of contributions, which makes it even more critical that employees feel they can afford to actually take the employer up on the offer. As with other in-kind compensation like healthcare or company cars, such benefits are usually a way for an employer to "top up" an otherwise-low salary. If it is disproportionately poorer employees aren't making the most of them, that hurts them twice over.

Of course, whether employees think they can afford to contribute into pensions is different from whether they can actually afford to. It may be that if the urgency of saving for retirement were properly impressed upon employees, they would be able to make savings in their daily lives elsewhere. But that's a very different proposition from merely reminding people that they ought to be saving more.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt