About Pensions History

Welcome to the Pensions History site.

Book jacket In 2004 Hugh Pemberton, Pat Thane and Noel Whiteside, in the introduction to their book Britain’s Pensions Crisis: History and Policy, observed that ‘creating a socially just and financially viable pension system for the aged is one of the most urgent political issues in Britain today.’ This remains as true today as it was over a decade ago. Indeed it is an observation that could have been made at almost any time in the past century. In pensions, history matters, though that history is often little attended to by present-day policy-makers.

From an historical perspective, what is perhaps most notable about Britain’s system of providing its citizens with an income in old age (whether via a state, occupational, or private pension) is that the overall system has long existed in a state of almost perpetual revolution. This has had very profound consequences. Not least, it has made Britain’s pension system as a whole one of the most complex and least effective in the world. Even experts struggle to understand all the system elements and, crucially, the many interlinkages between them. Ordinary mortals are simply bemused.

This is deeply regrettable for the decreasing efficiency of the system must be set against at least two other factors that make it difficult to solve its many shortcomings. First, of course, is the ageing of the population (as a consequence of rising longevity and the progressive retirement of the ‘baby boomers’). This, though in many ways to be celebrated, inevitably creates a rising demand for secure incomes in old age. Second, the financial crisis of 2008, the subsequent deep and long growth recession, and the absence of decent productivity growth are all working against the ability of the economy to generate the money needed to support the growing need for pensions (whether provided by the state, by employers, or via private saving).

So we have the worst of all worlds: a complex and inefficient pension system already ill-placed to meet rising demand as the financial crisis and its aftermath produce a weaker economy that is struggling to generate the money to pay the pensions that people expect.

As we struggle to find a way out of the present crisis we have many decisions to take and many questions to address, of which one of the most pressing is ‘how did we get into the present mess we find ourselves in?’. The second most pressing question, one might argue’ is ‘how can we avoid repeating the mistakes of the past’ (e.g. in building systems that encourage mis-selling, or making changes with an eye to the short- to medium-term, without adequately considering their long-term impact). In short, we cannot hope to craft a sustainable solution to one of the ore pressing problems of our age unless we better understand the long and complex history of its creation.

This website is intended to be part of a conversation about both the history and future of pensions. It is the product of both past and present research being conducted at the University of Bristol (our researchers are currently working on Thatcher’s Pension Reforms) but it will also periodically feature in its blog the work of other experts. We hope you will join in the conversation by responding to blog posts or by responding to us directly.

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