The Great Risk Transfer: How government has heaped risk onto individuals in one of the biggest changes to modern society – Susan Murray

How much do you know about the risk in your life? We have all had to think about risk a lot over the last 12 months.

The stark rise in food-bank use shows how many people are struggling to put food on the table, so they are unlikely to be worrying about pensions, insurance or social care costs in later life (Picture: Rachel Atkins)

Our lives have been dramatically affected to reduce the risk of spreading Covid. Decision-makers have had to weigh up risks against other potential harms caused by the consequences of restrictions and talked about this openly.

People see the risk of Covid differently. This led to stark contrasts in attitudes and behaviours. From rising OCD and anxiety disorders for some, to taking to the streets in anti-mask protests for others – these contrasting approaches can also be seen in attitudes to risk in other areas of our lives.

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New research from the David Hume Institute and Faculty of Actuaries examines what they call the Great Risk Transfer. Over the last few decades, there has been a largely politically driven transfer of risk from organisations to individuals in many aspects of our lives – but with very little public awareness or education.

Until the 1980s, there had been an implicit contract between citizens and governments: in return for their generalised contribution to the nation, the government would provide economic security in times of need.

Over time, this approach gradually shifted, resulting in a modern social system that expects individuals to take on the responsibility for managing risks. The relationship between contributions and benefits has become much more transactional. One result of this is that there are much greater demands on individuals to devote time and effort into understanding and navigating financial markets and risks.

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Expanding individual choice can be seen as positive and some parts of society stand to benefit from the enhanced freedom and flexibility this represents. But making these choices can often be extremely complex. Managing the risks involved often requires an advanced level of knowledge and understanding, and numeracy skills beyond the general population level.

This is one of the big ironies of the Great Risk Transfer: institutions that are well-equipped with systems and processes to manage risk are passing risk over to individuals, who in most cases are not. We should consider the link between our ability to control or mitigate the risks in our lives and our mental health.

The 2015 pension reforms meant many people withdrew lump-sums from pension pots and some spent their cash on holidays or home improvements rather than investing for their future.

But with rising life expectancy and many expected to live well into their 80s, your pension might have to last 35 years and some individuals are now lamenting earlier choices that are affecting their day-to-day quality of life. Despite the free, impartial advice available from Pensions Wise, only a small proportion of people are using the service.

Thinking about saving for a pension is a luxury for many in Scotland today. The nature of many people’s employment is precarious. The rise of zero-hour contracts and the push to self-employment mean often individuals are shouldering more risk than ever before.

In the David Hume Institute’s research, people especially in rural areas, often working in microbusinesses, told us of the need to have multiple income sources to try to make ends meet.

Lack of sick pay or predictable monthly income means reduced financial resilience. The stark rise in food-bank use shows how many people in Scotland are struggling to put food on the table – so they are unlikely to be worrying about pensions, insurance or social care costs in later life.

The Great Risk Transfer has been a gradual but concerted social change, heaping risk onto individuals, which has largely gone under the radar for the general population.

The last year has seen Covid exacerbate already stark inequalities. We have seen those with resources in a position to consolidate and those without, often in insecure employment with little, if any, personal reserves, see increased costs and increased risks.

The changes to pension auto-enrolment have meant many more people are starting to save for retirement. However, many mistakenly assume the minimum auto-enrolment contributions will cover a comfortable lifestyle in retirement. Unless information becomes more accessible, people may only realise at the doorstep of retirement that they have not saved enough.

But it’s hard to think about retirement for young people who might be worrying about getting or keeping a job, or repaying student debt. The data shows, with little exception that, now only young people with parental assets are able to think about buying a home.

For people in this lucky position, few are considering that in many new estates, roads and other services (like street lighting and play parks) have no plans to be adopted by local councils. This means maintenance – and quarterly health and safety inspections for play parks – become costs, and potential risks, shared between a smaller number of people through the annual factoring bills, no longer the responsibility of the local council.

If residents were to fall on hard times, there is no support available to help with factoring costs, unlike with council tax. This is worth thinking about as many opt for new-build dwellings, believing it will lead to reduced property maintenance costs but, like with some of those affected by the cladding scandal, property owners could find out they are shouldering the risks and are personally liable.

Going forward we need to re-examine and reinvent the way risk is shared. Flood Re, a joint initiative between government and insurers, has done this successfully for property in flood zones. But with a quarter of homes across Scotland having no insurance, many are choosing or defaulting to shoulder this risk because money is so tight.

The Great Risk Transfer is arguably one of the biggest factors changing society, and as we consider how we rebuild the economy post-Covid, we have a unique opportunity to re-examine, and perhaps re-invent, the way risk is shared.

Susan Murray is director of the David Hume Institute

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