Evaluation Scotland Wales
The UK Strategy for Financial Wellbeing is taking forward the work of the Financial Capability Strategy Opens in a new window


Beyond the defaults

Evidence type: Insight i


The UK’s Nest auto-enrolment pension system is now well established and millions more employees are contributing to workplace pensions. Yet engagement in retirement saving is still low and few people have moved beyond the default contribution levels that were set for them by the government. The auto-enrolment approach has been successful because it harnessed the inertia that was stopping people saving. However these same people are, by definition, less engaged than people who’ve actively opted in, so the focus for policy makers and industry is now shifting, from getting people to start saving, to encouraging them to save enough. This research explores the barriers to engagement with pensions and aims to understand how simple changes to the language used to talk about saving could help scheme members overcome them.

The study

The study comprised the following:

  • Qualitative interviews with eight experts from within the pensions industry, including scheme trustees, pension providers and advisors and benefits consultants.
  • Qualitative research in which 40 participants took part online pre-work, which included using a tool to indicate emotional response to messaging; 33 of these went on to take part in one of four online discussion groups, each lasting two hours and involving 6-8 participants, split by age and income.
  • A 20-minute online survey conducted with 1,500 UK participants in August and September 2020, all of whom were covered by automatic enrolment and working for an employer offering a defined contribution pension scheme.

The research questions were:

  • How do people understand pension contributions currently and what are the comprehension and awareness barriers to engagement?
  • How can language be better used to help people to save the right amount for them in retirement?

The research was carried out by Invesco, an independent investment management firm, Nest Insight, a research unit set up by Nest, and language strategy experts maslansky + partners.

Key findings

  • Barriers to engagement: Automatic enrolment and default contributions set up powerful anchors that bind people to the status quo.
  • Foundation messages: Three key messages were identified:
    • ‘You can contribute more to your pension’
    • ‘You can make a difference to your financial security in later life by rethinking the amount you contribute to your pension’
    • ‘Contributions you make when you are younger work harder for you’
  • Optimising the language: Some approaches to messaging had more positive impact than others – they are organised in the report according to the existing framework that states that Positive, Plausible, Plain spoken and Personal messages are more likely to connect with pension scheme members
  • When and how to talk about contributions:
    • Milestones in the workplace and in personal finances seem to be more relevant than personal milestones as a prompt for revisiting contribution levels.
    • The pension provider is most expected and trusted to provide information. However, a significant proportion of employees see this as the employer’s role, particularly younger workers.

Points to consider

  • Methodological strengths/weaknesses: The methodology is comprehensive and thorough, consulting with experts and pension holders to understand the issues in detail before quantifying the learnings.
    • The qualitative sample took both age and income into account, and the survey sample, whilst not necessarily representative of all defined contribution pension holders, also set quotas by age, gender, income and employment status to ensure that a broad mix of respondents took part.
    • Few details are given of the emotional response tool used, but the outcomes of this element of the research seem clear.
  • Generalisability/ transferability: This research is specific to defined contribution pensions in the UK and is not transferrable.
  • Relevance: Relevant and topical as so many people don’t have enough saved
    • Of interest to pension providers, government, policy makers and support agencies, but anyone with an interest in language in financial

Key info

Client group
Year of publication
United Kingdom
Contact information

Jo Phillips and Matthew Blakstad, Nest Insight, London nestinsight.org.uk