Technology has an important role to play in pensions but it’s not a panacea argues Richard Butcher, an independent trustee and managing director of PTL

The recent BBC series on automation and Artificial Intelligence was fascinating and, at some level quite amusing. Their assessment of the jobs at risk was particularly interesting, especially as my job was “fairly unlikely” to be automated and my wife’s, she’s a nurse, “highly unlikely”.

The point they made, however, was very serious. We are heading into another industrial revolution and it’s going to rock how we live and work, in the same way that the last industrial revolution did.

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I was at a conference the other day discussing the future of pensions and one or two themes emerged.

One of these was vaguely self-congratulatory. Five million people have been auto enrolled. The workplace pension population has been expanded hugely and although the expansion isn’t over yet, so far it is going well. It looks like we are en route to mission accomplished. This huge increase in the pension population, however, leads to new problems like how on earth are we to usefully engage with this many people?

The second theme to emerge from the conference was that the industry sees technology as the answer to this question. Techno-engagement: robo-advice, gamification, web-based learning platforms, push notifications – all phrases that buzzed around the room.

Now I’m no technophobe, indeed I am constantly excited by the amazing range of things that tech allows us to do, and I am, broadly speaking, an advocate for techno-engagement, if for no other reason than we don’t yet know, for obvious reasons, what it will be able to do in the future. To dismiss it out of hand would, therefore, be wrong. But, there is a but …

Some stats and thoughts:

Since the launch of Freedom and Choice in April, one of my insurer clients has spent, on average, 48 minutes on the phone to each of their callers over the age of 55. The customer spends that time talking to technicians qualified to adviser level on their options and the implications of each of them. They have fielded tens of thousands of calls.

A survey carried out by law firm Nabarro a couple of years ago revealed that 56% of members preferred face to face contact when seeking help on pension matters – by this they meant personal face to face meetings and/or workshops or seminars. They wanted to be able to ask a question and have a human response.

Another recent survey showed that when it comes to understanding pensions, the most popular routes are firstly, to not try, and secondly, to ask friends or colleagues. The internet came third (and, sadly, IFAs came fifth although I suspect that was due to cost).

A formidable 50% of people said they would speak to and take advice from friends and family.

And then there’s personal experience. If you work in the pensions business, just think back – how many times have your friends asked you for help? It may be a feature of my age, but the subject of pension saving and retirement comes up in conversation with my friends at least once each month.

People like to deal with people. People are human and react best to human interaction.

We should congratulate ourselves on the successful delivery, so far, of auto enrolment, but the job isn’t done. In fact, the job is only just beginning.

From here we have to keep these people in, lead them to good outcomes and help them to make the right decisions on, at least, contributions and the at retirement options. Techno-engagement has a part to play but it is not the only answer, let alone the best answer.

We are humans and we need other humans to help us.

Richard Butcher, is an independent trustee and managing director of PTL