Pensions economist and former government adviser, Ros Altmann, has astounded her many fans by accepting the role of director general of Saga.
The veteran pensions expert, best known for her tireless campaign for the 140,000 workers who lost their company pensions after 1997, is to take up her new post in October.
To its credit, Saga was one of the few organisations that provided financial assistance to the wind-up campaign, a fact which stood it in good stead when it approached Ms Altmann about taking up the newly-created post of director general.
As spokesman, Ms Altmann will bring a wealth of knowledge on pensions and retirement to Saga, the private equity-owned company that specialises in products and services for the over-50s.
She emphasises ‘helping the over-50s’ as being her remit, rather than the elderly. “The very elderly, the very rich and the poor have strong lobby groups already, but the 70 per cent of people in the middle don’t have a voice,” she says.
When asked what else her new job will entail, she says she will be the public face of Saga, campaigning on a broad range of issues affecting the over-50s, from financial education and the need to improve financial products, to pension reform and fighting age discrimination.
Saga already has an impressive range of products and services for the over-50s – everything from advice on sex in your 60s to fashion, diet, health and holidays. Its broad range of financial services includes most forms of general and life insurance, credit cards, annuities, long-term care and a small IFA arm.
Its other assets include the Saga magazine and the website. It even has a dating service and a charitable trust that pays for respite holidays for carers.
She believes that one of the greatest challenges is to help people in their 50s understand finance and help them plan for their retirement.
She says: “Currently the over-50s are being ripped off by the industry. It’s essential for everyone that those approaching retirement plan ahead so that they have enough to live on when in retirement.
“Otherwise, if a large section of the population hasn’t enough income to spend, it means long-term economic decline. It will affect young people who won’t be able to get jobs and those with elderly parents will have to help out with care home fees.”
She says that people understand they need to do something about their pensions, but don’t know whom to trust. As a trusted brand, she sees Saga as being in an excellent position to remedy this.
Above all, she wants to make financial education fun so that people engage with own their financial planning and envisages the possibility of having financial education courses on cruises.
“The government is talking about introducing a national financial advice service, so maybe Saga can work with them. I hope to be able to help in that.”
One of her greatest bugbears is age discrimination, so fighting to ensure that companies comply with anti-age discrimination legislation will be one of her top priorities.
“People want and need to work part-time in retirement because most people are still in good health at age 60 and don’t want to be consigned to the scrap heap”, she says.
“People coming to retirement in future won’t have enough money because final salary schemes are coming to an end and personal pensions haven’t worked out. Most people are still in reasonable health at age 60, so helping these people into part-time work has to be part of the solution. Working two or three days a week has both social and economic benefits for the over-50s in that the extra income is useful and going out to work reduces social isolation.”
At the other end of retirement, she views long-term care provision as another major challenge. She believes the UK will face a long-term care crisis in 20 years’ time because one in five people will need care in their old age and the baby boomer generation is retiring now.
“Are we just going to sleepwalk into another crisis or are we going to give people incentives to plan for long-term care through insurance, equity release or the inheritance tax system? People need to be led, encouraged and to understand what they are doing.”
Another issue on her agenda is pension reform. She describes the UK pension system as “a disgrace” and the most complex in the world, which she attributes to successive governments’ incessant tinkering.
“Almost nobody understands it, so radical reform is long overdue. If the government is serious about tackling poverty in old age and helping people make the right decisions for themselves, things have to change.”
This includes improving the way in which annuities are sold and broadening Saga’s investment offerings.
“I would like to revolutionise the way annuities are sold so that married men are discouraged from buying single life annuities. There is a need for a caring organisation to ensure that people do the right thing and buy the right annuity for themselves and their wives. If people don’t, they are stuck with it for life.”
As for long-term care, she wants to help the over-50s understand how to plan for it, both for themselves and for their own parents, seeing huge potential for equity release to provide retirement income and pay for home care fees.
Helping pensioners with repair and maintenance could be another service that Saga could offer “so that people don’t get ripped off and can stay in their own homes for as long as possible”.
She wants the over-50s to regard semi-retirement as a whole new phase of life waiting to be grasped: “Traditionally, we think of life in three phases – education, work and retirement. But there could easily now be a fourth – a phase of part-time work in later life before fully retiring. These would be ‘bonus years’ when people can choose to work part-time, instead of stopping completely.”
As a great believer in helping people to help themselves, she wants to encourage people to go and visit their MP. “How many have ever done that? It could make a big difference if MPs hear the views of older constituents.”
She says the overarching message she wants to convey is: “Don’t neglect the over-50s. They are mostly the decent, silent majority who make Britain great. They’ve got on with life, saved responsibly and expect to look after themselves. Society must not take advantage of them. They need representation as they don’t like to make a fuss. Well, I hope to help there and support them.
“I want to help people understand that later years don’t mean you are ‘over the hill’. We should enjoy life as we get older. I want to find out the concerns of Saga customers and reflect them at the highest levels.”
Sometimes viewed as an intense and driven person, Ms Altmann is known to her friends as a generous, warm and hospitable person. When not campaigning, she enjoys spending time with her husband and three children, as well as keeping fit by swimming and going for long walks.