In a year in which the Government announced the biggest pensions shake-up
in decades, one of the market's most influential figures also hit the headlines. Dr Ros Altmann, an independent expert on later-life issues, was awarded a CBE last June for services to pensioners and pension provision. A month later, the Government appointed her as its Business Champion for Older Workers.
Highly regarded as a consumer champion, Altmann is perfectly suited to the role, having devoted much of her career to highlighting financial injustice and explaining complex financial issues to the layperson.
In her new role, she is committed to raising the profile of later-life working. "We're not talking about forcing people to work longer, but enabling them to keep working if they want to," she explains. "Surveys show that older people often want to continue working even if they have got good pensions, because work has other benefits, such as social interaction and the feeling of usefulness."
"I never expected to have to fight so vocally against the governing party"
With people living longer, Altmann believes we must think about a whole new phase of life she calls "bonus years". "We need to look at ways in which people can work longer, and more flexibly, for a period of time when they're cutting down on work, which is both physically and mentally much healthier than suddenly stopping work altogether."
Altmann is urging businesses to consider what she has labelled the 'three Rs': retain, retrain, recruit.
"If people stop working altogether, their skills and years of experience are lost to the employer, whereas if they stay on - even part-time - they can still benefit the firm," she says. People working later in life deliver a hidden boost to the economy too, she adds.
July 2014 - present: UK Government's Business Champion for Older Workers
October 1993 - present: independent policy expert, media commentator, pensions and retirement specialist
October 2010 - February 2013: Director-General, Saga Group
March 2001 - July 2005: policy adviser to Number 10 Policy Unit
August 1999 - August 2000: consultant to HM Treasury
January 1984 - October 1993: Board Director, NatWest Investment Management; Board Director, Rothschild Asset Management; Head of International Equities, Chase Manhattan Bank
Education: first-class honours degree in Economics from University College London; a PhD degree in Economics from London School of Economics; Kennedy Scholar at Harvard; awarded an honorary doctorate from University of Westminster.
Businesses should also be prepared to retrain older workers, says Altmann, who cites financial services as an example. "Roles that were common in the past are becoming out of date relatively quickly. The markets change, ways of working change and qualifications change."
She is pleased to see a growing number of employers offering training to the over-50s. "Employers are finding that the return on investment with older trainees can be better than with younger people, because older workers tend to stay longer," she says.
Altmann has already proved a highly influential voice on UK pensions rules, and says the new rules will bring about a "sea change" in the market. "They are a real game changer," she says. "I think they will make pensions much more user friendly and encourage a lot more people to put money into them."
She adds that the new rules on inheritance
, which will allow anyone who has not touched their savings to leave them to relatives as an untaxed inheritance, will make pension money "stickier in future". This will give people in the securities industry the opportunity to manage pension assets for many more years than previously, she says.
The new rules also give the industry far greater scope to create pension products that fit people's lifestyles, points out Altmann. "In the past, we've thought of pensions as typically one-size-fits-all products, but this is a new way of thinking," she says. "I have always thought pensions are not just about money - they're about people."
That empathy with pension savers saw Altmann spearhead a campaign to achieve compensation for 150,000 workers who lost their final-salary company pensions after being assured by the Government that their pensions were completely safe. The campaign, which took several years and which Altmann pursued without pay, led to the establishment of the Pension Protection Fund in 2004.
"I never expected to have to fight so vocally against the governing party," she admits. "I was an adviser to the Government at the time and I naively assumed that all I had to do was explain the situation carefully so they would understand what had gone wrong and put it right."
She sees the final-salary campaign as her biggest career achievement. "We got a successful resolution, despite everybody at the beginning saying there was no hope," she says, explaining her motivation for taking it on. "I just fell into it and couldn't turn my back on the people. They were in so much trouble."
Moving to the City
Altmann never envisaged running such campaigns early on in her career, when she was an academic researching and publishing on UK pensions policy.
She says: "I had an academic post lined up as an economics lecturer at Warwick University and suddenly thought, economics for me is not just about equations and models - it's about the real world, and if I never see the real world, how will I be able to research it properly? So I decided to put my academic career on hold. I went into the City to manage pension fund money, which was a big change for me, but I loved it."
Altmann recalls the excitement of working life in the City at that time. She says: "I went into it in 1982, when all the international markets were just opening up. Coming out of the late '70s and early '80s recession, stock markets were booming around the world.
"Analysing the macro and seeing how it played out in the stock markets was fascinating. In those days, all European countries had their own interest rate policy, and if you could predict those, you could make an awful lot of money."
Altmann spent the next 15 years managing institutional investment portfolios and advising central bank and private client fund managers. After starting at Prudential, where she eventually became an international economist on the investment side, she went on to become Head of International Equities at Chase Manhattan Bank's international investment operation in London. She describes "taking a fund that was fourth quartile to one that became top quartile consistently over five years at Chase" as one of her biggest achievements.
After leaving the City to spend time with her young family, she returned to work as a consultant. Highlights include helping the UK Treasury on the Myners Review of Institutional Investment and working on pensions policy with the Government's Number 10 Policy Unit. She later worked for more than two years as Director-General of Saga Group, which focuses on serving the needs of those aged 50 and over.
Now back working with the Government, Altmann insists that her role as its Business Champion for Older Workers has not stopped her voicing her views on policy. "Oh, I'm still very much independent," she says. "I'm being a critical friend, sometimes, if you like."
She blogged in December
that last year's Autumn Statement was missing incentives to save for care. "I think we need to get social care right, which includes creating suitable savings products for it," she says. "Can the industry come up with something that will help people save for later life? Care ISAs, or care savings plans of some kind?"
She is equally committed to looking after herself. "I like to keep fit. I believe in 'healthy body, healthy mind', so I go to the gym and swim quite a lot," says Altmann, who also enjoys dancing and trips to the theatre and London's Comedy Club. "I enjoy a good laugh!"
Family is hugely important to her too. "I try and set aside at least one day a week for family," she says. "I work pretty much the other six days, typically! But that's fine if you enjoy what you do."
Her work today involves trying to improve millions of people's lives. "If we can rethink the whole concept of retirement so it becomes a process rather than a one-off event, it will make a big difference," she says. "There's a whole new phase of life we can all embrace that is better for us, our children and the economy.
"It's a way of life which maybe previous generations couldn't have, but it's out there for the taking."