Retirement Commissioner Jane Wrightson.

Q&A: Retirement Commissioner Jane Wrightson

Jane Wrightson, our new Retirement Commissioner, tells Eldernet about her priorities for the role, and what she is looking forward to when her turn comes.

What was it about the role of Retirement Commissioner that attracted you to it?
I had a leadership background in media, regulation and industry advocacy so thought these skills might be useful. But mostly I was really interested in learning about the crunchy issues facing older New Zealanders. Funny how that becomes interesting as you age 🙂

Do you see the role as being primarily about financial capability? Or is the remit wider than that?
There are three main pillars to my role: advising the government on retirement income policy (such as NZ Superannuation) so that the system serves New Zealanders in all their diversity; overseeing the regulatory framework of retirement villages, including dispute resolution and sorting out issues with the industry collaboratively; and helping New Zealanders become more financially capable so they arrive at retirement in good financial shape. Ultimately our vision is that New Zealanders retire with confidence.

What are your priorities?
A month after I started we went into lockdown, so I’ve had time at home in Wellington to think about those. As a country, we are faced with an ageing population and we need the right policies in place across all of government to support each of us as we age. I’ve started work on actioning some of the recommendations from our 2019 Review of Retirement Income Policies, and we’re rebooting the National Strategy for Financial Capability so that all the organisations within it work together better to help New Zealanders become more financially capable.

What is New Zealand doing well about retirement? What are we doing badly?
The 2019 review came to the conclusion that NZ Super is good value for money, and sustainable for at least the next 30 years. It’s an excellent form of support for our senior population, not only for current recipients but also to give our children peace of mind that it will be there for them in the future.
The review also defined areas that need improvement, especially for people in the pre-retirement years. The ability to own your own home mortgage-free, continue working if you want or need to, and mechanisms to help people save enough to have choices in retirement all need work. They will be among my areas of focus in coming years. COVID-19 has thrown all this into sharp relief. Have a look at who’s hurting in the research we published in June – it’s sobering.

Not everyone retires equally – who is missing out and how can we fix it?
As I alluded to above, those who are still renting or paying a mortgage in retirement are on the back foot financially. Those who want or need to work and can’t for whatever reason are disadvantaged not only financially but also socially, and those who have been unable to save or had their savings interrupted by taking time out of the workforce, often to care for others, arrive at retirement with less. Women, Māori and Pacific peoples are particularly disadvantaged.
We made recommendations in the 2019 review that we think would improve each of these areas, and the government is due to respond within the next few months. Whatever they decide, and bear in mind there is also an election coming up, we’ll continue working across government to improve things.

Do you think we have higher expectations of retirement than our parents and grandparents did?
I don’t think so – maybe we expected to travel more than our parents did (again, pre-COVID). In focus groups we ran for the review, people had pretty simple wishes – spend more time with family and friends, travel a bit, pick up or develop their hobbies, maybe do some part-time work or volunteering. What’s changed is that life has got harder for some retirees for the reasons I’ve mentioned above.
Our children’s generation will be the first to arrive at retirement in worse shape than their parents, due to declining home ownership and the rising cost of living. The effects of COVID-19 will only make life tougher for them for some time to come. We owe it to them, and to ourselves, to help improve the system so everyone can have the retirement they deserve.

How have your own attitudes to retirement changed over the decades?
I think I’m similar to many of my generation – I barely gave it a thought in early years, with relatively poor financial literacy and a degree of trepidation around how to plan. The older you get the more pressing the issue – now I’m an evangelist for future thinking.

What’s one thing you are looking forward to about your own retirement?
Hopefully more travel. Hopefully a grandchild. Hopefully good health. But I’ll work in one way or another, just more flexibly. Work helps keeps the brain active!

Is there a particular book or author that has inspired you in your life or career?
Not a single one. I’m a devotee of good New Zealand fiction because it’s how our stories are told. I didn’t read a modern NZ book, I think, until Witi Ihimaera published Pounamu, Pounamu in the mid-1970s. Thank goodness we now have choice! I’m looking forward to tackling Auē by Becky Manawatu, the book that won the Ockham this year.

Who is your personal hero?
Right now, all politics aside, it would have to be Jacinda Ardern. She’s being fêted internationally for her calm leadership amid a storm we’ve not seen in my lifetime – and with a baby on her hip. Doesn’t matter who you vote for, it’s leadership of the highest order.


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