Meet Britain's youngest pension fund trustees

Kim Kaveh
clock • 9 min read

Kim Kaveh speaks to three trustees under the age of 30 about harnessing the power of generational diversity on boards.

Diversifying pension fund trustee boards has been on the radar for some time now. Last year, the Pensions and Lifetime Savings Association embarked on a campaign to improve the diversity of trustee boards in a climate of "division and disharmony". Meanwhile, The Pensions Regulator has promised this is an area it could "increasingly dig into".  So why is diversity important?

Having a diverse trustee board is a key driver to a board's ability to govern properly, make effective decisions and protect member interests. It includes - but is not limited to - varied political beliefs, genders, ethnicities, educational and socioeconomic backgrounds, sexual orientations and geographic locations.

But true diversity also encompasses the age of trustees.

Indeed, some boards are finally waking up to realise the power of having younger pools of talent in the meeting room - to challenge perceptions, broaden ambitions, and bring different outlooks to the table.

Speaking exclusively to Professional Pensions, local government trustee Lorna Russel - 29, member nominated trustee (MNT) Anna Darnley - 25 and MNT Jens Van Egmond - 30, demonstrate how boards can reap the benefits of generational diversity.

‘Dynamic energy'

All agree that younger trustees can make a positive contribution to the board.

"It brings a dynamic energy that might not otherwise have been there", according to Russel, an account manager at Lansons - who became a trustee at the age of 25 for the London Borough of Camden.

She believes it does not necessarily follow that if you are young, you do not have experience.

"It is important to make sure that younger trustees are representing our younger members.  For example, I am not afraid to ask questions which might sound ‘stupid'.

"I think some of the older and more experienced trustees might be afraid to ask those questions. It's about making sure every decision I make is in the interest of the members; acting with integrity, responsibly, and prudently."

Meanwhile Darnley, who became a trustee for Accenture's Retirement Saving's Plan at the age of 24, describes how her personal experiences on the board have led to a change in member outcomes for the better.

"I have had situations where my opinion has differed from others on the board which has resulted in a rich discussion on how we make decisions - both in cases of specific members, but also more broadly when we're talking about communication as a whole."

"I think what is incredibly important is a willingness and an interest to learn" - Anna Darnley, Accenture Retirement Savings Plan

The design lead at Accenture's innovation centre says although she did not have pensions experience before she took on the role, this is not essential to become a trustee. "I work a lot around user experience and design so I have no contact with pensions whatsoever. I think what is incredibly important is a willingness and an interest to learn."

Van Egmond - who became a trustee at the age of 27 agrees, noting that just because a trustee has "not seen it all, it does not mean they cannot make a positive contribution".

Van Egmond is a trustee at Sportfondsen Pension Fund - a Dutch company which operates over 200 swimming pools on behalf of city councils.

Although he has gained pensions knowledge and experience, working as a defined contribution manager at Cardano, he adds: "I think for all trustees including the younger ones, there should be some room to learn from fellow peers."

The challenge

But as well as acting in the interest of members, the experience which the trustees have gained in their role is valuable to them. In fact, Russel and Van Egmond really enjoy the challenge.

Russel says working in financial services means she gets to work with asset managers and pension funds from the other side - so representing them, and lobbying government on their behalf.

"But actually, flipping it over, I get the chance to grill them about why they're not providing enough benefits for our members; a really interesting experience which has helped me in my career."

However, although being a trustee is a big responsibility, the best thing is that if the work is done properly people are very grateful. Van Egmond provides an example. The organisers of the pension fund I work with have really thanked the board for doing a good job over the past couple of years. They got their pensions increased in line with inflation. Not all funds had that".

Going forward

So, moving forward, what can be done to encourage more boards to take younger generations on?

In the Netherlands every board should have at least one trustee below the age of 40 - as stated in the code of the Dutch pension funds.

"That is a very noble goal to strive for and if you commit to that goal and actively recruit among young members then I think that should do the trick."

But boards must also take action themselves, by being active, and speaking to younger generations at various events or in the workplace. Indeed, Russel strongly agrees. She hopes that boards will be encouraged to look for more young trustees.

"I don't think the local government schemes have a particular problem because by virtue by the fact that we're councillors. And there are quite a lot of young councillors in London particularly.

"However, more broadly there is a lot more work that needs to be done to either nurture young trustees to come forward or for boards to more openly broaden out the recruitment process."

Wider issues

But it is not just generational diversity that is a problem on boards. The trustees also recognise the wider issues.

Russel and Darnley express what they believe are the untapped areas - which include gender, race, disability, and class.

Russel says: "I think a lot more needs to be done. I wouldn't take generational diversity as a standalone topic and I'm bored of the recruitment process.

"They should make sure they are following quality human rights commission standards to make sure they have a code of conduct for diversity. They also need to make sure that they have an accountability for diversity, and find the right people. I would encourage them all to look at their own recruitment processes."

There are also other forms of cognitive diversity - the diversity of thought and opinion - that we really need to start talking about as well, according to Darnley.

"From a generational perspective there is an onus on those involved with pension schemes to go out and to talk to people in their business to ensure people do understand what the pension offering is, and to understand what pensions are. And it comes back to a real lack of financial education that we have."

She adds that there is a real opportunity to go out and to engage with younger people and start a dialogue.

"If  that dialogue gets going explaining the reason pensions are important, why they matter, and the impact it will have on their quality of life later on, people will be interested."

But the key is to do it in a way which isn't patronising.

It should not come from a place which says "I have 40 years' experience" and "you know nothing and I'm going to tell you what to do", adds Darnley.

She concludes: "I think the key is going to the table and saying this stuff is really serious, and this will impact you, your quality of life, and your family's quality of life - let's have a conversation."

So what lessons can boards take away from the trustees? If pension fund trustee boards harness the power of generational diversity, it will lead to better decision making and ultimately, improve member outcomes.

How did the trustees get appointed?

Anna Darnley - Accenture Retirement Savings Plan

My Dad actually works in finance so it's fair to say pensions was always on my radar. It's not something I particularly knew a lot about I just knew it was really important to have one.

Last year, I received an email from Accenture's board of trustee's saying they were opening positions to get new trustees on the board.

I submitted an application, stating why I would make a good trustee, why I was interested and what I would bring to board. I then passed the interview and was appointed to Accenture's trustee board.

I'm very grateful to our chairman Peter George who has been a fantastic role model and a wonderful mentor. The board has also been wonderfully supportive.

Lorna Russel - local government pension scheme for the London Borough of Camden

I have worked at Lansons since 2012 and I've always been interested in financial services because of that. I have followed pensions policy for the last six years.

It wasn't until George Osborne announced Freedom and Choice in the autumn budget in 2014 that my interest in pensions had peaked because pensions was at the top of the political agenda and an issue everyone was talking about.

I became a trustee by virtue of being a councillor and being on the pensions committee for the scheme.

Jens Van Egmond - Sportfondsen Pension Fund, Netherlands

I studied finance at university in the Netherlands, and completed a postgraduate programme in pensions. I thought it was great because it combines society with the financial world which I find very interesting. One of the first things that the professor said was - the biggest threat to our pension system is that it's an ‘old people's party'.

I was involved as a follow up from the youth Labour union with a think tank called pension Lab. - An organisation for people below 35 - to try to establish the pension system of the future.

One of the things they were doing was promoting diversity and I was giving evening courses in investing to young people who wanted to become a trustee or be in the member council which was great.

But then the pension scheme called me up. The scheme needed a young trustee that knew know a lot about investing - because in the Netherlands there's a regulatory requirement for that.  And then they said well who do we have? - And that was me.

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