Justifying pension reforms: Comparing policy discourses in Norway and the UK

Date01 September 2020
AuthorPatrick Ring,Tord Skogedal Lindén,Rune Ervik
Publication Date01 September 2020
Justifying pension reforms:
Comparing policy
discourses in Norway
and the UK
Patrick Ring
Glasgow Caledonian University, Glasgow, UK
Rune Ervik
NORCE Norwegian Research Centre AS, Bergen, Norway
Tord Skogedal Lind´
NORCE Norwegian Research Centre AS, Bergen, Norway
The latest UK and Norwegian state pension reforms have reflected contrasting policy design in the
balance of private pensions, savings and state provision. Nevertheless, we argue that both gov-
ernments have in many ways adopted strikingly similar approaches in seeking public acceptance of
these potentially controversial reforms, employing a similar repertoire of discursive elements to
persuade populations about their logic and rationality. Based on critical analysis of government
policy papers, speeches and parliamentary debates, we find that both countries emphasise ‘sus-
tainability’ and ‘fairness’ within an increasingly individualised context where both systems are
characterized as facilitating individuals’ efforts to attain security in retirement through ‘choice’ or
‘flexibility’. Significantly, contrasting symbolic metaphors are adopted to situate these reforms, and
their proponents, within the heritage and traditions of their different welfare systems, which we
find is a key element in successfully implementing the reforms. We note the implications of this
research for the analysis of European state pension reform.
Fairness, individual responsibility, pension systems, public pensions, sustainability
Corresponding author:
Patrick Ring, Glasgow Caledonian University, Cowcaddens Rd, Glasgow G4 0BA, UK.
E-mail: p.ring@gcu.ac.uk
European Journal of Social Security
2020, Vol. 22(3) 306–326
ªThe Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1388262720950736
1. Introduction
In the past decade, the adequacy and sustainability of public and private pension provision has been
a key issue for nation states across Europe (European Commission, 2018; HLG, 2019). The fiscal
demands of the coronavirus pandemic (Di Feliciantonio, 2020) have only compounded the budget-
ary challenges of population ageing and shrinking workforces. As a result, governments have
faced, and will continue to face, the dilemma of seeking retrenchment in state-sponsored pension
spending whilst avoiding claims of intergenerational unfairness. In most cases to date, the result
has been incremental, parametric reductions in levels of pension provision (European Commission,
So how have governments justified these reforms so far? In seeking to address this question we
examine the importance of discursive regimes, following the influential work of Schmidt, who
argues that an important element in reforming welfare states is the ‘‘ability to legitimate the eco-
nomic adjustments and institutional adaptations by way of public discourse’’ (2000: 278). This
discourse, according to Schmidt, should differ across countries due to different contexts, pressures
and differencesin the relevant actors that must be convinced.We therefore adopt a comparative case
study examining how the UK and Norway have addressed the challenges of state pension reform.
These countries have been selected because of their contrasting institutional pension structures and
different welfare state typologies as defined by Esping-Andersen (1990). Norway represents the
social-democratic welfare system and the United Kingdom the liberal welfare system.
Comparing Norway and the UK implies contrasting two different pension systems. The public
British system was and is directed towards protecting against poverty in old age (basic security, the
Beveridge model) rather than securing income standard security as in continental Europe (e.g. the
Bismarckian model of Germany) (Hinrich & Lynch, 2010). The public pension system in Norway,
Folketrygden (National insurance) has in contrast, since the introduction of income related pen-
sions in 1967, aimed at combining basic and standard security, or in other wo rds combining
Bismarck and Beveridge. The contained public responsibility in the British system, has strength-
ened the role of occupational pensions and private market-based arrangements for income security
in the British pension system (Bridgen & Meyer, 2011). The strong dominance of public pensions
in Norway has reduced the scope for occupational and private pension schemes.
A simple way to illustrate this is to have a look at replacement rates, which tells us the share of
previous earnings that an individual receives as pension in retirement. The figures in Table 1
indicate some important aspects of the functioning of the two pension systems previous to the
pension reforms. This composition of different pension institutions expresses in historical context
different policy ideas and broader welfare state philosophies of the two countries. In the British and
liberal welfare state tradition limited public resources should be targeted at those most in need to
reduce poverty, and additional income needs ought to be left to the individual and his/her own
decision on saving and choice of a suitable level of living in old age. Thus, voluntarism is key in
the British pension system (Bridgen & Mayer, 2011). The Norwegian tradition expresses a wider
state responsibility for welfare in line with what is known as the social democratic, Scandinavian or
encompassing welfare model (Esping-Andersen, 1990). Here, public resources are used to reach
beyond fighting poverty to ensure income inequalities in old age are lower than in working life
(Pedersen, 1999).
We conduct a critical investigation of government policy papers, speeches and parliamentary
debates over the periods 2001-2009 (Norway) and 2004-2013 (UK). By undertaking a form of
directed content analysis of policy documents (see Hsieh and Shannon 2005), identifying the key
Ring et al. 307

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