How to really engage young people with superannuation

Young people play an important role in co-creating solutions to Australia's superannuation and retirement challenges – but engaging them remains an ongoing challenge

Superannuation is a complex topic for most, but it is especially confusing for young people who have a long way to go before retirement, and who might not be as financially literate. To help future generations better navigate this landscape, why not employ young people to generate actionable ideas for accessible digital tools that explain the myriad of complex concepts, the importance of saving, and what that might look like down the road?

That is precisely what the Retirement Sandbox project between UNSW and the superannuation industry has achieved. The project’s lead, Dr Kevin Liu, Undergraduate Program Coordinator of the School of Risk and Actuarial Studies at UNSW Business School, recently spoke about how young people can help to co-create innovative solutions at the 29th Colloquium on Pensions and Retirement Research, co-hosted by the Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing Research (CEPAR) and the School of Risk & Actuarial Studies. The presentation was delivered jointly with Dr David Bell, Executive Director at the Conexus Institute, and Dr Shang Wu, Associate Portfolio Manager at Aware Super, who both completed their PhD at UNSW Business School.

Many of the challenges that were being discussed ten years ago are still the same issues being addressed today, explained Dr Liu. These include post-retirement product design, financial literacy, longevity risk, behaviour issues preventing people from making optimal retirement decisions, policy implications, regulation, and the performance of superannuation funds etc. So it seems these challenges are not going away anytime soon.

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UNSW Business School's Dr Kevin Liu says incorporating real industry challenges into the classroom creates a safe place for students to co-create solutions to tackle superannuation challenges. Image: Supplied

Do young people care about superannuation?

Speak to anyone in the superannuation industry, and they will say young people need to engage more with their retirement savings earlier in life. While the whole point of superannuation is to let time do the work, many Australians unwittingly end up paying fees on multiple funds instead of simply rolling them into one. Or, many people end up sticking with their job’s default fund for way too long instead of taking the time to choose a better-performing super fund with lower fees, simply because they do not understand how to switch or the importance of doing so. Young people, who should be paying more into their superannuation earlier to gain more potential earnings in the long term, are "missing out" due to their lack of engagement.

Of course, asking young Australians to contribute more towards something they cannot access for many years into the future will come with challenges, but to assume young people do not care about their futures is neither helpful nor accurate, as there are other, more systemic issues, at play. For example, in 2019, the Productivity Commission's final report revealed structural flaws such as unintended multiple accounts and “entrenched underperformers” harming millions of superannuation members. Today, around $13.8 billion in Australians’ hard-earned wages is waiting to be claimed in lost or unclaimed superannuation, with NSW topping the nation with $3 billion as unclaimed or lost super. But can we really blame the public, or could there be other reasons for those funds existing or being forgotten about in the first place?

Read more: Australia's ageing population: why the reality of the intergenerational report may be worse

Superannuation is complex. For those that aren't expert investors, a lot to do with the way superannuation is invested and calculated is not intuitive. Even something as basic as compound interest, which economists call a financial miracle, can be challenging to comprehend let alone apply to your own savings when considering the impact of stock market volatility and the existence of the low volatility anomaly – a theory based on findings that stocks exhibiting lower volatility achieve higher returns over the long term. Indeed, many riskier asset classes experience down years which can amplify losses over time, and this can be a difficult pill to swallow for some. Many young people are making decisions without adequate information or the ability to imagine what any of these decisions might mean in 20, 30 or even 40 years’ time.

All of this means that the world of superannuation is exceptionally tricky terrain for young people who generally want secure funding for their futures but don’t know how to achieve that in a world that is increasingly unpredictable, volatile, and unsustainable (given the looming threat of climate change). It is why young people need help making sense of the nuance in a way that interests and engages them. Indeed, reports have shown that young people do become engaged when financial services and products are provided to them on the right platforms and are easy and simple to use. But the idea that all young people are uninterested and ill-equipped to handle their retirement savings journey is simply not true. Young people just need the right kind of engagement.

The power of unleashing student-led problem solving

Though academics, policymakers and industry have mounted massive efforts to address the superannuation industry's ongoing issues, young people, as key stakeholders, are typically not engaged when it comes to developing solutions to tomorrow's most pressing challenges, explained Dr Liu. But the industry can absolutely inspire young people to own these issues and unleash their creativity and innovation to come up with actionable ideas and solutions to these real-world problems, he said.

Therefore, Dr Liu has incorporated Sandbox industry projects in the Retirement Saving and Spending over the Lifecycle course at UNSW Business School. To date, there have been three industry partners in the Sandbox program in the superannuation course last year – Aware Super, who provided one industry challenge, and the Conexus Institute and Super Consumers Australia, who jointly provided one challenge.

“The Conexus Institute is always looking for ways to collaborate, contribute and have an impact, so the Sandbox Program represents a really good opportunity,” explained Dr Bell. “I love working with smart and vibrant students, and it is good to engage students with problems faced by the industry.”

In one of the challenges, students were tasked with solving the problem of how to engage young members more with their superannuation for industry partner Aware Super. The second challenge for the Conexus Institute was to create a better retirement projection model. Working within a small group, one team identified the lack of personalisation and several barriers to understanding the superannuation regardless of the person’s age (yet a desire to engage more).

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Young minds can play an important role in co-creating solutions to the superannuation industry's biggest retirement challenges. Image: Shutterstock

Another group used an evidence-based approach to create a feature within the Aware super app that showed people the difference between the compounded value of making a voluntary contribution and the value of discretionary consumer/tangible items that target their demographic sees desirable, such as vacation or a 20-year Netflix Premium Plan.

"Getting young members to engage with their super is an important issue. Understanding just what an asset their superannuation is can empower them to make a real difference to their retirement. So, we thought why not challenge smart young students to develop some solutions?" explained Aware Super's Dr Wu. “Aware Super is pleased to be supporting the Sandbox Program and we get really valuable insights from the students.”

Young people need to form an emotional connection with their superannuation

Most of the solutions that the students came up with highlighted that while young people as key stakeholders are typically not included and are not engaged, it is important to create tools that enable them to form an emotional connection with their future selves.

“We try to incorporate real industry challenges into the classroom to create a safe place for students to try and learn and co-create solutions, alongside industry practitioners. They can design solutions to real-world challenges and problems with 19 industry partners and 90 industry representatives across the different schools within UNSW Business School,” explained Dr Liu.

Read more: How financial advice helps to deter financial crime

These students have experienced a unique opportunity to learn, engage with industry, and contribute to the solutions to real-world retirement challenges. And so far, Dr Liu says he has been impressed with the students’ exciting and innovative solutions, which provide industry partners with fresh perspectives and creative ideas. “Our Sandbox collaboration experience shows that we can inspire talented young minds to play an important role in co-creating solutions to the pressing retirement challenges through partnering with the industry,” he said.

Dr Kevin Liu is the Undergraduate Program Coordinator of the School of Risk and Actuarial Studies, UNSW Business School. Dr Liu is Deputy Director of the UNSW Sandbox Program and has pioneered the StoryWall Formative Assessment Model, adopted in over 40 courses at UNSW Business School to engage students as partners in co-creating authentic learning experiences and active online learning communities. For more information, please contact Dr Liu directly.


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