People in the pensions industry are fond of using the phrase “financial education” as if they know the answer and those who aren’t doing what they want to do are financially illiterate. This is hugely arrogant and largely wrong. People will generally do what they want to do for good reason, the best people like me can do is to give them better opportunities to do it.
Teaching people to behave better can only happen with trust and very few people earn the trust to be genuine pedagogues. Preachers who change the way people lived their lives are few, those who remain trusted after they have died are fewer still. John Wesley lives on through the Wesleyan movement as an example of someone who changed people’s lives when he was alive and who continues to be influential today.
I can number the influencers who I can expect to be influential in ten years time on the fingers of one hand. Martin and Paul Lewis, Steve Webb, Ros Altmann, perhaps Jo Cumbo. These are people who have the charisma to influence today and the integrity to be remembered tomorrow. They are capable of delivering financial education because people listen to them. For the rest of us, and I include me, we cannot aspire to be teachers, gurus or even financial educators and the public will laugh at us if we do.
In truth, the things that people feel they want help on are not the things we want to help them on. They do not need to be told they are not saving enough, they want mechanisms that help them save more, whether that be auto-enrolment, salary exchange, the LGPS AVC-wise or most simply, a better pension deal at work. You do not need financial education to see a good deal, you need Martin Lewis telling you it’s a good deal!
Most of us haven’t time, energy or even a wish to become better educated financially, we want the basic skills to exercise the maximum from the circumstances we’re in. For the fireman, that might be the choice between pre 1992 and post 1992 accrual when it comes to making his choice over McCloud. For the pensioner, that might mean finding out how to claim pension credit and for the everyday saver, that might mean asking questions about ways to top-up the workplace pension. We all have doors to unlock, we need to be shown the keyhole and handed the key.
So we are not financial educators, we are financial servants of our customers. Our job is not to convince them to do what we want them to do, but to service their needs. We need to understand what those needs are and we need to provide them with guidance to keyhole and key.
From John Wesley to Jo Cumbo, some people have got the knack of talking to people in a way that makes them listen and generates action that leads to people getting better deals. For Wesley the key was to the kingdom of heaven, for Cumbo it might unlock a decent pension. For neither is the key about “education”, though Sunday Schools and Pension Dashboards might come into it. For all pedagogues, the key is “conviction”, the certainty of knowing you are right.
How many of us really have the courage of our conviction? We are not financial educators, we are servants of our masters, and usually our masters have no conviction at all.