Is work – are pensions (and is life) fair?

meaning of life

Reading the scope of the DWP Select Committee’s new enquiry into intergenerational fairness had me grasping for my video copy of the Meaning of Life.

The inquiry aims to answer the question of whether the current generation of people in or approaching retirement will over the course of their lifetimes have enjoyed and accumulated much more housing and financial wealth, public service usage, and welfare and pension entitlements than more recent generations can hope to receive.

Questions the Committee is looking to address include:

  • What has been the collective impact on different generations of policies in recent years, including welfare reform and deficit reduction with areas of protected spending?

  • To what extent is intergenerational fairness a welfare issue?

  • What effects are these changes projected to have over time? Are they sustainable? What have the long-term trends been?

  • How does the welfare system interact with other areas of public expenditure and income and wealth in the wider economy, including issues of health, education and housing

  • Is the triple-lock necessary to prevent future increases in pensioner poverty?

Certainly one for Frank Field’s philosophical bent!

Apart from providing an essay list for  politics teachers, can such a wide ranging enquiry have any useful purpose. Would the Committee be more engaged in working out how to Equalize GMPs or re-establish pension credits?

But then you realize these are the very issues that the WASPI women are asking, and with some cogency. “Are our generation getting their fair shares” is a question that will very rarely get a positive answer.

The other man’s grass is always greener and the sun shines brighter on the other side.

Let’s hope that Frank Field really does lead this work. I can remember being astounded when I met him in the late 90’s. He was a figure like no other, aloof and independent from any lobby, neither an academic or quite a politician, more a moral beacon.

Morality is not something we hear much about in politics. I suspect that Field and Webb, both strong Christians – represent a certain traditional view of fairness – one more grounded in the  benevolent paternalism  of liberalism than fire-brand socialism.

There is another brand, more humanistic and more conservative, into which I place consumerists like our present Pension Minister and Paul Lewis. The humanistic approach to fairness is based around opportunity and is – at heart – a Thatcherite approach. The liberal paternalist tradition harks back to a gentler age for whom the catchphrase was “the poor are always with us”.

I suspect that the underlying principle that drives Frank Field is that people must strive to be self sufficient while the State must ensure that if they fail, there is a safety net. Such a view embraces compulsory activities such as paying tax and providing insurance for dependents to a point where an individual is able to say he or she is no longer a burden on the next generation. But by the same philosophy, the Field/Webb approach accepts that those who fail – need to be bailed out by those who don’t. This is what I mean by benevolent paternalism. It is the culture that I was brought up in.

For the humanists, Paul Lewis is publicly an atheist, I cannot speak for Ros Altmann’s private religious views but see her driven by personal endeavour, the view of fairness is less communal and more opportunistic, it is fair to give people the opportunity, it is not fair to reward failure.

These deep-rooted differences in value systems emerge in conversation. I sense that I know where Field and Webb come from (in that it is where I came from). I can understand the position of Altmann and Lewis but it is not mine. I admire both positions in perhaps an over liberally way – simply because I don’t have absolute conviction (oh the perils of the post-modern dialectic).


Understanding that there are different views out there, is important to understanding the debate that the DWP will have. I don’t think that Frank Field’s answer will be accepted by a fundamentally Thatcherite minister ; if I was Ros Altmann I would be rolling my eyes and muttering “here we go again”. If I was Frank Field, I would be rolling up my sleeves yet again to rehearse the same arguments he has been making since he first came into the public eye ( a long time ago).

If this simply becomes a private debate within parliament, I can’t see much point in this new enquiry, but if it sparks a public debate that continues in the spirit of WASPI to call into question the role of the state and how it interacts with its citizens, I see this enquiry as very helpful indeed.

We’ll have to see whether it does indeed engage the public, It has engaged me, but that is not quite the same!

About henry tapper

Founder of the Pension PlayPen, Director of First Actuarial, partner of Stella, father of Olly . I am the Pension Plowman
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1 Response to Is work – are pensions (and is life) fair?

  1. henry tapper says:

    Here’s Edwina Currie’s take on the matter – thanks to Telegraph’s personal finance section

    “So MPs are launching an inquiry into “inter-generational fairness” over fears that the system is favouring pensioners at the expense of younger generations, are they? Millions under 43 will lose out after reforms to the state pension. Their elders, meanwhile, are “the biggest winners”. An outrage? Well, pardon me while I blow a raspberry.

    Grey hairs and the modest holidays go hand-in-hand with a rock-solid pension, cost-of-living increases included

    If young people want a comfortable retirement, they need to stop spending money on skiing holidays, on fancy kitchen gadgets, designer handbags, on their Louboutins and Manolo Blahniks, and do what their grannies and granddads had to do. They need to stop wasting money and make it work for them instead. They need to stop believing that it’s the Government’s responsibility to save them from their own stupidity. They should, in other words, seek to develop the same habits of frugality and saving for a rainy day that once were taken for granted.

    I’ve never been skiing – not just because I’d break a leg on my first piste, but also because, long ago, I realised it was an expensive hobby and probably way beyond my pocket to sustain. So the youngsters may laugh at the older generations in their caravans, sipping hot chocolate from plastic mugs on campsites, but let them reflect that the grey hairs and the modest holidays go hand-in-hand with a rock-solid pension, cost-of-living increases included. That is not an accidental juxtaposition.

    The retirees could probably teach the grandchildren a host of good habits, if only the sniggering infants would take out their earphones long enough to listen.

    Today’s ambitious young people reckon four years is quite long enough with one employer; they flit from post to post, often doing little more than adding to their CVs, failing to display resilience at anything much. But butterfly behaviour is not the way to build up a nice pension pot.

    The main focus of the parliamentary inquiry is the British state pension and welfare system. Of course it favours the pensioners. That’s exactly what it should do. You can tell a fit 27-year-old to stop moaning and get a job, even at the minimum wage (and that’s going up), but you can’t say that to an 87-year-old.

    This Government and its coalition predecessor have tried to reform the welfare state, rather too cautiously in my view, mainly by cutting benefits for under-25s and for those who could and should be working. The outcome has been a jobs revolution, with record numbers in employment despite the nay-sayers predicting catastrophe. And now our parliamentarians want to put the clock back, do they? Bloody nerve, is what most OAPs would say.

    If young people want a comfortable retirement, they need to stop spending money on skiing holidays, designer handbags, on their Louboutins and Manolo Blahniks

    The system was originally designed to support those who have paid their dues and have come to the end of their working life. The key element is Beveridge’s admirable contributions principle, enunciated just before I was born. We paid in for decades, often a working life of 50 years, most often for the same employer. We paid in over and above the minimum National Insurance contributions, joining the firm’s pension fund. Sometimes we paid in Additional Voluntary Contributions even as we wondered whether it was worth it. And we make other contributions. We also do our bit for charity; we are a veritable army of volunteers. And over a million state pensioners are still working, showing competence, reliability and skill.

    If other generations would like to be in the same place some day, with spare pensions they can cash in to take a cruise; if they would like to own a home, with a mortgage all paid off; if they would like to reach old age with a bob or two in the bank, then all they have to do is copy us. Everyone has a choice how to spend this month’s earnings. So think long and hard about it. Look after your money, dear children, and some day it will look after you.

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