Thinking about pension systems for the 21st century: A few remarks based on the Polish example
The end of 2018 will mark the 20th anniversary of the introduction of Poland’s current pension system. It has been subjected to constant modifications, in general dictated by either ideological or ad hoc goals, but it has resisted destruction, and in essence is working as it was designed. The need for its introduction, misleadingly called a reform, was dictated by a long-term shift in the age structure of the population. In essence, the earlier system was replaced by the current one. The essence of this switch is a shift from the quasi-tax financing suited to the population structure by age of the past, to quasi-savings financing suited to the structure in the 21st century.
This text is not an overview of the 20-year history of the current system; it is a critical examination of the functioning of Poland’s pension system against the backdrop of the universal challenges that pension systems are facing in the 21st century. The text barely touches on many fundamental questions. A full discussion of them would require a longer discourse, for which there is no space here.
The purpose of introducing the current system was to balance the interests of the working generation and the generation of retirees. The previous system worked only for the interests of retirees, while those of the working generation, expressed in the level of its net income, was treated as an afterthought. This kind of system could operate in the 20th century. But in the 21st, it turned out to be not so much immediately impossible, as socially harmful. A change of system was thus essential.
The current system is now quite well suited to the current population structure. The biggest problem in its functioning is citizens’ negligible awareness of how it is actually structured and what that implies – both on the macro level and on the level of individual behaviors. Pension issues are counterintuitive. This results both from their combination of macro- and microeconomic issues and from the fact that their time horizon exceeds any other undertaking. For a pension system to work well, it has to be understood by its participants; meanwhile, pension education practically does not exist. What’s worse, the public debate concerning pensions tends to frighten people rather than helping them. Instead of knowledge, there are chaotic assumptions, often far removed from reality. They are adopted as axiomatic, or as a result of inertia in thinking, or unrealistic expectations. In the first case, the current system is perceived as if it were the previous one. Meanwhile, in reality they are fundamental opposites. In the second case, people expect that the system will miraculously multiply the funds available for pensions. But in reality each system can only divide up what has been created. Discussions partly concern side issues, partly consist of misunderstandings and partly are derivations of general views. Much harm was done by the discussion on changing the proportions of the division of contributions in the universal system (the so-called OFE discussion). Debate on pension questions requires that the issues be laid out in an orderly fashion; we need a critical view of basic concepts and how they are understood. Without that there is no chance to solve the problems of pensions systems, or even to understand what they’re about.