The trouble with time travel. And pensions

We could probably do without any more sobering news on the economic front, but a new OECD report is about to compound things, in the way only reports from initialism-heavy international institutions can. This one is apparently suggesting that we need obligatory private pension schemes with a mandated 15-per-cent-of-salary contributions to safeguard our retirement years.

What makes this so utterly depressing is the realisation that we are economically screwed not only now but, more than likely, right into the future. The OECD report might feel like a form of tyranny at the hands of actuaries, but I’m inclined to see obligatory 15 per cent pension payments as something quite different: they are actually the future’s way of reminding us of its daunting power.

There is no better illustration of this than a fascinating experiment beloved of pension companies, detailed in the new book from the behavioural economist Cass Sunstein, Simpler: The Future of Government . Sunstein is the world's leading exponent of applied behavioural economics, hired by Barack Obama to implement "nudges", a refined species of government paternalism that seek to encourage more prudent behaviour among the otherwise ignorant populace by identifying and designing for people's biases and behavioural tendencies. Sunstein's pension example is cunning.

It turns out that if you show people mock-ups of how they will look in their retirement years, they are likely to invest substantially more in their pension schemes. It’s a potent brain hack, and one that is so well established that Merrill Lynch has a website devoted to exploiting it.


The site snaps a picture of you before greying your hair and wrinkling your skin and draining away your vitality until you’re looking into a future mirror. It’s a glimpse of time’s inexorable cruelty that leaves you simultaneously terrified and awestruck, forcing you to realise that the future is coming, goddammit, and you had better begin to prepare if you’re to have any chance of squeezing whatever slim dregs of comfort and satisfaction might remain in the time you have available.

Or I’m guessing that’s what would have happened if my webcam was working properly.

All of this is to say that pension payments are a gift to our future selves, and the reluctance an awful lot of people have to making that payment is pretty telling. Sure, it’s most easily dismissed as inertia, or laziness, or complacency. But, from a different perspective, that reluctance highlights the rather complicated relationship we have with time.

I'm reminded of an interview with the French film director Michel Gondry in Esquire magazine last month. In it, Gondry discussed the inherently depressing qualities of time travel. He has had in the works a long-gestating time-travel film that will undoubtedly mess with our heads by messing with the space-time continuum – after all, he treated us to one of the great cinematic works on the power of memory in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind .

But outside of the narrative potential it offers, the notion of time travel is a melancholy one for Gondry.

“I find the whole idea of travelling back in time to be profoundly depressing,” he said. “Because I know the future. Living in the past, it would feel weird to know what’s going to happen next. You couldn’t escape it. That future’s already in your head. You know it doesn’t get better . . . The future is about hope. If you travel from the present to the past, you don’t have that hope anymore. You know how everything turns out.”

Gondry’s point is even more applicable when travelling into the future. We are all time travellers in the sense of moving through time one second, minute, hour and day at a time, but there’s good reason that sort of quotidian time travel is about all we’re psychologically equipped for. Whatever about travelling back into the past, travelling into the future extinguishes that critical “not knowing” altogether. Faced with our future selves, or even some Photoshopped approximation of it, the “not knowing” is compromised.

We dream big and we hope large, and we do our best to avoid realising that the future probably won't live up to those aspirations – and, more to the point, that we can't live up to those aspirations.

Pensions are down payments on the future not of our dreams but of reality, and behavioural economists and actuaries and OECD staffers are right to get us to think about them prudently.

But in a world where the present can so frequently be mediocre, holding on to the notion of an unrealistically bright future is not just understandable but necessary.

Shane Hegarty is on leave