I am very honored to be one of twelve academics from the Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs to have been featured in this new publication. Fast forward to page 58 to find out why pensions aren´t boring and why do-it-yourself-pensions are a bad idea. Or scroll down to read the full interview below.
Pension schemes? Bóóóring! At least, that’s what lots of people think, but not Natascha van der Zwan. On the contrary, the assistant professor and political scientist is fascinated by the subject. She compares pension systems in various countries (in historical perspective) and reflects on the way they work out for citizens. ‘Saving for later on an individual basis? That will widen the gap between rich and poor.’
Pensions are as old as time, says Natascha van der Zwan. ‘In Roman days, for instance, it was already common that the state (if one can use that term) rewarded veterans for their services with a “pension provision”, a piece of land. In The Netherlands, the first pension schemes came into being in the early 19th century. Strikingly enough, they were also, at first, meant for veterans, and for civil servants. The government provided a favor, a token of appreciation from the king to people who had distinguished themselves in government service. Soon, however, those provisions were expanded to another category of pensioners: widows and orphans. Based on the idea that one should protect families without a breadwinner from further misery.
Over the course of the 19th century pension rights were extended to other groups, and the execution of those rights sided more and more with employers. Around the turn of the century , a number of big firms already provided their workers with a pension. Still as a favor, not as a right. And actually this is still the case today. In The Netherlands we have two kinds of “pension”: a state allowance at a fixed level, to which every citizen is entitled (the “AOW”). And a supplementary pension, as a rule managed by pension funds or insurance companies and paid for by employers and employees during the course of their working life. Agreements on contributions are part of the terms of employment. Logical, as pension is in fact deferred wage: a form of salary that’s only paid after some time. ‘It’s typical for The Netherlands that management and labour organisations decide together on pension rights, often through collective labour agreements.’
Van der Zwan is working on a historical study comparing pensions schemes in Germany, the United States and The Netherlands. ‘In Germany a public pension (provided by the state) was introduced in the late 19th century. Private companies were not involved in this scheme. Even today, the government plays a leading role in pension provisions and pension funds are therefore less common in Germany than in the Netherlands. The country relies on the state pension, paid for by premiums. Current employees provide for current pensioners. But if more people retire and fewer people have a job, you’re in for a huge problem. Either workers pay more, or the government has to supplement.’
In the United States the ball lies in the employees’ court. Companies are not obliged to offer any form of pension, and usually they don’t – many people rely on their own savings. Didn’t labour unions try to change this situation? Of course, and in the seventies the American unions were a force to be reckoned with. But their influence dwindled. They simply lost the battle.’
In the Netherlands, the question if the pension system should be scrapped is the subject of heated debate. ‘Not for the first time’, says Van der Zwan. ‘In the nineties, politicians were already questioning the current system. Employees, they argued, should be more at liberty to spend or invest their deferred wages as they saw fit. But time was not ripe for this yet. This only changed when the consequences of the financial crisis became noticeable. People were dissatisfied and new ideas gained ground. And what about Germany and the US? Of course, they also feel the pressure of economic circumstances and an aging population. These countries advocate making pension provisions less voluntary, along the lines of the Dutch system.’
Van der Zwan herself is critical of the new pension ideas. ‘We know from the scientific literature: voluntary systems do not work. People don’t save, they postpone saving, or and only consider the short term. Or they have just managed to fill their pension pot when they are confronted with higher care costs. There goes their pension!’
‘There are people who say that we have become too dependent on government provisions, and that they cost too much. I am not one of those people. We know that the “do-it-yourself-pension” can make citizens very insecure, as well as leading to more inequality between those who have sufficient knowledge, discipline and responsibility to save for later, and those who haven’t. A voluntary system will widen the gap between rich and poor, between people who’ll have all their eggs in their basket, and those who’ll lose out.’
Text by Andrea Hijmans