Zurich boss: ‘We need to look at protection, savings and retirement together’

Gary Shaughnessy is Zurich's chief executive for the EMEA region. [Olivier Billot]

Amid growing social inequalities and the digital transformation of the economy, Zurich’s Gary Shaughnessy believes public officials, employers and insurers should all cooperate to provide protection to the most vulnerable groups.

Gary Shaughnessy is the chief executive officer for Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) region at Zurich Insurance Group.

He spoke with EURACTIV’s Jorge Valero

How should we organise protection schemes when we have growing needs and fewer resources in our welfare states?

We need to resolve this by working together with governments, employers, the insurance industry, consumer organizations and academics. You cannot solve this just by a product. It has to be a much wider framework.

Secondly, there is a holistic point here of how we link savings, protection and retirement. The idea that you will get to the age of 65 having had a single job for your whole life, and retire exactly that day, is changing completely, either by choice or by necessity.

We need a framework that enables us a more flexible way of working. I do think the insurance sector has a key role to play by providing solutions that help consumers pass the risk back to an insurer, or employers passing the risk back to an insurer. So we can share that risk.

Is the bigger role you claim for the insurance sector a signal of the decline of the welfare state, or is it because the challenge is so big that everybody should play a role?

I think the challenge is more fragmented. The digital economy can be an enabler for people, or it can bring much less certainty to them. Some people are really happy about working through more years, but for others, it is a requirement because they need income to pay their bills. I don’t think there is a single answer to that. I do think there must be an opportunity to be more flexible in the solutions we provide to have a framework that actually creates and enables access.

And also make sure that the solutions we provide as a society are not just to the wealthiest or the healthiest but to all our citizens.

You are suggesting a new social compact. If you were a policymaker, what priorities would you include?

Firstly, there should be a greater role for education, to support employers and employees. It is very important. We also need structures, whether it will be auto-enrolment, nudges of various forms, fiscal benefits, or transferability of products.

But we need to create the structure that makes easy for people to have access to appropriate coverage for their needs on an ongoing basis. And thirdly, we have to have a change in the mindset.

Protection, savings and retirement are seen as three very separate things.  Actually, they are very interlinked. You don’t know when an illness will occur. And in the short term, maybe you would save for your retirement but by doing so, maybe you would have less flexibility if something goes wrong. We have to look at these three things together.

There is a lot of talk about the social pillar, safety nets, and building resilience. But this approach has a defensive nuance. What about readiness, to fully harness the potential of what is coming?

For me, it goes back to the whole point of education and making choices that you do have available to you. What we are trying to do is to increase access, increase choices. That may be difficult for parts of our society, and that’s where society needs to step in and help.

The more we can increase people’s choices, particularly around things like diet, exercise and taking care of themselves, the better that is for solving a problem when something goes wrong.

A final question on Catalonia and Spain. Given that you are the third largest insurer in Spain. Will the ongoing turmoil in Catalonia affect your business there?

Our priority is to make sure that we continue to provide products, services and support to our customers. We are doing that, and we will continue to make that our priority. The same goes for people. We are making sure we give them the support they need. And that is actually where we are focusing at the moment.

Your colleagues in Spain said Zurich has a contingency plan. Have you activated it?

It is inappropriate for me to go into the details. But, as an insurer, it is not surprising we have contingency plans for every country.

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