The Policy Press, Bristol, 2003, 152pp, pb, 1 86134 337 X, £17.99, hb, 1 86134 338 8, £45. Order this book Also in paper back £17.99 Order this book
There are many ways to slice analytically the pensions question; by slicing along the gender dimension the author has not only exposed the key debates around this particular variable but has thrown the whole messy area of pension reform into sharp relief. Much of the problem with the pension debate is, perhaps surprisingly, not ideological. Whatever side of the political spectrum protagonists come from they have similar desires to see reasonable income smoothing over a lifetime and that the measures taken to ensure this are efficient and, in some measure, equitable. While a lack of consensus on what constitutes ‘equity’ is one of life’s political certainties, the pensions problem is racked with many more uncertainties than the average political battleground: the long time-horizon, the difficulties of balancing structural incentives with broader freedoms and the avoidance of crippling burdens on government. This latter especially, given the knowledge that the markets in this area are prone to failure, creates a complex series of interwoven problems. To sift through the multiple dimensions is not easy. To have the courage to de-emphasise some issues to achieve clarity and to guard the analytical capacity to aid understanding is a rare skill that is ably demonstrated in this book.
A great deal of the text and figures is given over to an efficient yet highly readable précis of the recent history and current state of the pension arena in the UK and, occasionally, other countries. This is far from being merely a quick rehash of old material, nor is it of limited use due to the focus on the gender dimension. There is a purposefulness and clarity about the material that is often missing in more general works. The tables are especially well presented with the complexity of the data and the referencing of sources being acknowledged but without becoming troubling or intrusive. Unlike many books of this kind it is well enough presented to ‘dip into’ with the attention being caught by well chosen and presented data that then lead on to a deeper analysis in the text.
Where the work really scores for me, as a student of political science and former policy maker, is in its head-on approach to the reality of problems. Thorny issues such as miss-selling, the systematic failure of private pensions for specific groups and the scale of information failure are handled impressively. The issues are neither glossed over nor lingered on unnecessarily – they are given their place within the analysis and addressed in an illuminating manner. Direct criticism is rare and is reserved mainly for failures to take account of what should have been stunningly obvious at the time and not only in retrospect.
This book is for anyone who has an interest in the equity issues of pension reform, offering as it does not just a specific analysis on gender but a model for many analyses of a similar nature. The only people who might find they are skipping chapters are those who have read, inwardly digested and understood an impressive range of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Department of Work and Pensions and Office for National Statistics statistical publications – but it is to be hoped that even experts can appreciate new presentations and different emphases of such data.
The broad conclusion that emerges from the work is that policy makers must take notice of the gender issues. There have been major changes in social roles and labour market involvement for women both flowing upward from social change and imposed downward by evolving government policy, but what becomes clear in the final account is that the system that failed women of a previous generation will, even after reform, do no better in giving women the security in old age that all citizens deserve. Pension strategies across all spheres need to be examined and adapted so that tomorrow’s generation of taxpayers will not have to pay for today’s failures. Without action today such failures are fated to fall on the governments whose predecessors ignored them.
Stuart Astill, LSE.
Former economic advisor and policy analyst, Department of Work and Pensions.