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Old at heart: The new financial priority

The financial crisis was associated with mounting household debt around the world. Between 2008 and 2016, the median debt-to-GDP ratio in advanced economies grew from 52% to 63%, while emerging markets saw that figure soar from 15% to 21%, according to the International Monetary Fund.

For years, the headlines of personal finance pages highlighted this financial vulnerability, detailing the stresses even well-paid individuals and families suffered when trying to pay their monthly bills, which often included spiraling consumer debts.

But there seems to have been a quite dramatic shift in financial priorities. Zurich Insurance Group and the Smith School at the University of Oxford have surveyed 18,000 employees from the US to Australia  for an authoritative new report, People protection: insights on empowering the agile workforce, which has found that the global workforce is now looking beyond making ends meet to having enough money tucked away for their later years.

For workforces in 14 of the 16 countries covered by the study, a comfortable retirement is now the primary financial worry. In Australia, 43% are most worried about later life security against 28% for paying monthly bills - globally the numbers are 44% and 27% respectively.

That's a startling gap between the global workforce's two chief financial concerns. Explanations could include the improvement in the world economy and greater public awareness of what has been termed the pension 'ticking time-bomb'. For example, governments around the world have made dramatic reforms, from increasing the retirement age to modifying related tax incentives, in efforts to balance pension payments with stretched public finances.

And what this data shows is that there is the potential for policymakers, employers and insurance companies to start deactivating that bomb.

As might be expected, nearly three-fifths of the oldest workers in the sample are busy prioritizing their pensions. Perhaps more intriguingly, though, planning for retirement starts becoming the financial priority when people reach their 30s and even those in their 20s are nearly as likely to worry about pensions (32%) as they are monthly bills (34%). In Australia, this breaks down to almost one in three  twenty-somethings who are already concerned about their old age.

Younger people can no longer be as confident about their future entitlements, particularly from the state, as previous generations. Moreover, employment practices are changing, with more people willing to go freelance for a better work-life balance and younger workers potentially having a less secure career than their predecessors, even after gaining a foothold in traditional, permanent employment.

All this means that people at the start of their working lives struggle to forecast their future earnings and benefits with any degree of confidence. They have far more reason than their parents or grandparents to worry about long-term welfare, so they will also be looking for solutions to that problem at a far younger age.

What is concerning here is that, despite being aware of the need for longer-term protection, the workforce is often woefully under-prepared for old age. The survey showed that more than a third - 36% - of respondents did not hold any type of personal insurance, including personal pension products and products such as income protection to safeguard the savings process.

Employers, then, must exercise a duty of care to make sure the younger generation has the information they need when selecting pension products. Insurers should develop flexible products that allow younger people to start saving earlier without fear of struggling, beyond those financial problems that already exist early in a career.

Finally, policymakers can adapt social safety nets, such as state-sponsored savings plans, that encourage workers in their 20s to take up the cover they need.

Unusually, there is huge interest - and, as a result, a huge global opportunity - in saving properly for old age. That opportunity must be taken.

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