“I should do it, but I do not.”

Attitudes of young people regarding their retirement savings

University of Duisburg-Essen, Project Report by Heike Schütt and Torge Riebesell



Against the background of recent pension reforms in Germany and the related social discourse, this study deals with the attitudes, explanations and justifications of young people regarding their own retirement savings. In this context, eight problem-centered interviews with students and apprentices of different disciplines were conducted and analyzed using grounded theory methodology.

As has been shown in earlier research, young people’s early stage of life is characterized by short-term life planning and yet little scope for individual responsibility. Young people themselves are aware of this role and it is also largely socially accepted. Nevertheless, youth simultaneously must deal with the increasing amount of expectations and requirements related to their future pension arrangements and with the ubiquitous reminder of the potential consequences of not saving for their old age. The external social expectations therefore neither match the prevailing resources of the life stage, nor the life planning of young people in general. This is also evident in the actual saving behavior: If not initiated by parents or employer-funded pension schemes, arrangements are postponed to a later stage of life.

This contrast is perceived as an inconsistency between the assumed obligation on the one hand and their actual own behavior on the other hand. The issue is furthermore reinforced by a perceived general uncertainty about the future. This inconsistency could not be resolved by the interviewed youth and lead to a veritable fatalism: The possibilities of future planning in general and retirement arrangements in particular are generally questioned or even denied. The own behavior of (not) saving is rationalized and justified in this way, avoiding dealing with potentially unsolvable future problems and enabling a reorientation to the present.

Retirement-related attitudes therefore are meandering in between the two dimensions of  flexibility, focus of the present rather than the future and low responsibility on the one hand and the ‘pension saving imperative’ on the other hand. The described pattern does not differ fundamentally with the kind of educational track (occupational training or tertiary studies) nor with the discipline (economic, technical or social subjects). Notably, even greater pension-related knowledge does not change the actual behaviors or attitudes.

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