Even if they can't easily articulate what single thing could be done to make them go home, the Wall Street protestors and their European counterparts have more than a little in common with the Dutch youth political activists who last month joined forces in a ‘pensions rebellion' against the Netherlands' pension agreement that they believe disadvantages them in favour of older generations.
"The pensions pot is being emptied," say the Dutch activists, "because pension funds still base their policy on unrealistic growth perspectives, which enables them to mask their financial shortfalls." They also had something to say about the likelihood of funds granting indexation to pensioners to the disadvantage of younger generations.
In some ways, it is quite shocking that the Dutch political activists should seemingly have so little faith in a system that has prided itself in is consensual reconciliation of diverse social interests. It is certainly the case that the Dutch pension system is becoming more conditional in nature but, as yet, no-one is really arguing for an end to a collective system that features pension funds running one investment policy for all.
As Lans Bovenberg and Caspar Ewijk contend in the Guest Viewpoint article in this issue, "risky pensions are good pensions" but the Dutch activists do not presumably think enough risk is being taken for their needs. A fragmentation would be inevitable if it proves impossible to reconcile the differing expectations of the various generations involved in the pension system.
The Wall Street protestors and the Dutch activists share an awareness of the real impact they are feeling, or expect to feel, on their standard of living. The US protestors might point to recession and unemployment and the Dutch activists have highlighted problems with pensions but both sets of concerns have a common underlying cause - the imbalances in the financial system that led to the financial crash of 2008 and the subsequent downturn.
Clearly, pensions are politically contentious, as we all recall from the furore that takes place in our own countries when governments propose raising retirement ages, cutting benefits or hiking contributions. It is rare that the technicalities of pension funding or the intergenerational nature of pensions come in for criticism but there is an increasing awareness that younger generations will get considerably less from pensions than older generations are getting from current the current system.
Undoubtedly, the immediate post war generation got a good deal out of a system that provided full employment, at least for a while, a good education system and good final salary defined benefit pensions. In comparison, today's under 30s are looking at student loan debt, uncertain employment prospects and considerably less from national and supplementary pension systems. The debt burdens of Western countries and the uncertain economic outlook cloud the outlook further.
The Dutch activists may or might not seriously hope for a radical shake-up of their pension system but they are symptomatic of a growing sense of unease about the economic prospects of Europe and the Western economies generally.
The real mistake was that our assumptions were too optimistic for too long. Lulled by the secular bull market at least from the 1980s onwards, we assumed that benign markets would continue to provide healthy returns. A lack of serious shocks coupled with deregulation and financial innovation lulled us into believing that the world was becoming a less risky place as risk was parcelled around the world. Just as it will take time to rebalance economies after the shock of debt and downturn, it will take time to rebalance pension systems that were built on the foundations of unsustainable assumptions.