Connecting policy with the personal: UK pension reforms and individual financial decision making

  • Hayley James

Student thesis: Phd


Connecting policy with the personal: UK pension reforms and individual financial decision making Hayley James PhD Candidate Department of Sociology University of Manchester Pensions play an important role in our society as they provide for a time later in life when people cannot, or do not want to, continue working. However, falling private pension saving rates in the UK have led to concerns regarding the adequacy of provision for later life. The automatic enrolment policy was introduced in 2012 to encourage private pension saving by automatically enrolling employees into workplace pension schemes. Automatic enrolment has led to more people participating in workplace pensions; yet, most of those newly enrolled are saving at the minimum default contribution rates, which are unlikely to deliver adequacy in later life, and members are not engaging with financial incentives offered for greater contributions. The economic models of decision-making that have provided the foundation for the pensions industry and supporting policy have not been able to explain sufficiently why people are not engaging with pension saving as expected. This Thesis approaches pension decision-making as a practice embedded in the complexities of everyday life which reflects the subjective nature of individual experience, drawing on literature from the sociology of consumption. The research follows a constructivist-interpretivist methodology using semi-structured interviews with 42 participants aged 25 to 45 years old who had experienced automatic enrolment into workplace pensions. The findings suggest that there are different approaches to pension decisions which connect to the subjective understandings of the social, cultural and moral worlds of individuals. The research identifies a typology of decision-making, with four approaches to pension decisions, which are Threshold Adults, Protectionist Savers, Market Investors and Sceptical Speculators. These are ideal types, which means that participants did not fit neatly into one box, yet most were inclined towards one type. These approaches were not fixed and may change over time, responding to the shifting context of an individual’s everyday experience. These pension approaches represent specific challenges for policy and industry in terms of recognising the complex and varied nature of personal interaction with pension decisions. The contributions of this research are threefold. First, it provides an empirically-grounded and theoretical understanding of pension decision-making, which contributes to the formation of a sociological model of financial decisions. Second, it promotes the importance of qualitative research methods to understand financial behaviours, as opposed to the quantitative approaches dominant in literature. Third, it offers policy solutions which may help to improve pension adequacy in later life.
Date of Award31 Dec 2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorTine Buffel (Supervisor) & Debora Price (Supervisor)


  • Pensions
  • Financial decisions
  • Individuals
  • Agency

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