Please sign here, Madam: Coutts Bank on the Strand, 1970. Photo: Getty
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The bank has two exits – the door I came in by, and the ground that will swallow me up in shame

What I thought was going to be an investigation into my expenses turns out to be nothing of the sort: instead, a charming young woman is trying to sell me life insurance.

Another one of those awkward moments at the bank. Once again, I find myself with too much month at the end of my money and as the manager happens to be doing a stint at the till (which I find commendable, like an officer leading from the front), I ask him again about a modest extension to the overdraft limit. The last time I asked this, a central computer turned me down and the manager looked pained and confused as he gave me the news.

This time, he suggests a loan. This will pay off the loan I have already, as well as a few other things, and it will probably work out cheaper than my frankly rather scatty approach to personal finance. All is fine: the brain in a jar that is the bank’s decision-maker vents a few bubbles saying I’m good to go and panic is assuaged until the next time.

A couple of days later, I get a call from a woman at the bank. She is coming into the local branch next Wednesday and could she interview me, please? This I do not like the sound of. Somehow, I do not think she is going to be interviewing me for a job, or a profile in NatWest’s staff magazine (“This month: our most feckless customers reveal their astonishing secrets”). Still, the bank has gone out on a limb for me and it is only round the corner, so it would be bad manners to say no, if not unwise.

The day comes and I remember the appointment only ten minutes before it is due. As I have barely had time to potter around before the first cup of tea, I have neither showered, nor shaved, nor – I notice – put on any trousers. I wash my hair with one hand, shave with the other and pull my trousers on with my teeth and manage to arrive two minutes early. Like James Bond – I’ve been reading a lot of James Bond lately – I check the bank for available exits should things turn sticky. There are two: the door I came in through and the ground, which at some point will open up and swallow me to cover my embarrassment.

What I thought was going to be an excruciating investigation into my expenses turns out to be nothing of the sort: instead, a charming young woman is trying to sell me life insurance. “Life insurance”: the words have become associated with fiddles and scams for so long that I am amazed no one has come up with an alternative term. Then again, if I take out a life insurance policy, who will be zooming whom? I’m not exactly a safe bet.

Going through my personal details before sending them off to the other brain in a jar that is the insurance department’s arbiter will take between half an hour and an hour, she tells me, which puts me in a bit of a panic because a) I don’t like sitting in a small, enclosed room in a bank for that long with anyone, however charming, and b) I am conscious that I only had time to shower my head, which is generally not the smelliest part of a body that hasn’t showered for a day. The reason it’s going to take so long, it turns out, is because she is obliged to read out every word that appears on the screen to me – presumably in case I am one of those customers who says he can read and write but actually can’t. I assure her that I can read, quite quickly, as it happens, and that we can zip things along. She looks doubtful at first but soon we get into the swing of things.

“I’ve never gone through this so quickly before,” she says at one point. “Twenty minutes, that’s amazing.” We also establish a rapport. This might come as a bit of a shock to you but I am given to flippancy in the face of official questionnaires and exercise this gift more than once in the face of what are otherwise rather impertinent questions. She is by turns amused – “I’d love to spend the whole day with you, just to see what you’d say next” is a very nicely two-edged compliment – and horrified: “How many units a week? That’s impossible.”

By the end of it, we determine that if I decide to forgo cover for loss of an eyeball and benign tumours, we can have a decent sum on my death for a modest monthly outlay. And I have been, largely, honest with my answers. It will take the brain, I gather, three months to make its decision, during which time I will get free cover. Sounds like a deal. She presses the button.

Her terminal does not make a waah-waah noise but a red thing comes up on-screen that tells us I instantly have been refused life insurance. I think of a few funny things to say to lighten the mood but, in the end, keep them to myself.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, India's worst nightmare?

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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/