Interview with our Guest Researcher in The Hague

In this interview, we delve into the fascinating research of our guest researcher Elisa Chulia Rodrigo, Associate Professor of Sociology at the Faculty of Political Science and Sociology of the Spanish University of Distance Education (UNED) in Madrid. With a background in studying information control under dictatorial systems, Elisa’s research interests shifted towards family sociology and welfare state reforms, particularly focusing on pension politics and policies.

Elisa shares insights into her research journey, starting with her initial focus on press policies under the Francoist regime and later shifting to the study of the Spanish pension system. Emphasizing the interdisciplinary nature of pension reform, she discusses the unique challenges faced by sociologists and political scientists in understanding the institutional, political, and social dynamics that influence pension policies. The conversation takes an in-depth turn as Elisa discusses her current research on the 2023 pension reform in the Netherlands, known as The Future of Pensions Act. She sheds light on the complexities of the Dutch pension system, its resilience in the face of challenges, and the lessons it offers for other countries. Elisa emphasizes the importance of examining successful reform stories, highlighting the Dutch pension system’s top-ranking position in the Mercer Global Pension Index.

Finally, Elisa reflects on her stay at Leiden University, revealing interesting insights into the Dutch pension reform and the role of defined contribution systems. She acknowledges the significance of language proficiency in accessing local media for a more nuanced understanding of the pension reform’s details. This interview provides a glimpse into Elisa Chulia Rodrigo’s rich academic journey, her research endeavors, and the valuable perspectives she brings to the study of pension policies and societal reforms.

The interview:

Who is Elisa Chulia Rodrigo?

I am an Associate Professor of Sociology at the Faculty of Political Science and Sociology of the Spanish University of Distance Education (UNED) in Madrid. In addition, I collaborate with the Spanish Foundation of Savings Banks(Funcas), a think tank devoted to economic and social research with the aim of transferring knowledge about the evolution of the economy and the society.  

What is your interest field and main research topics?

I wrote my doctoral dissertation about press policies under the Francoist regime (1939-1975) and developed a very intense interest in information control under dictatorial systems. But by the time I finished my PhD in 1997 I was offered different invitations to join research groups that have pushed me in other research directions. My main research fields are since the beginning of this century family sociology and welfare state reforms, particularly pension politicsand policies.

Are you enjoying your stay at Leiden University?

Yes, definitely! In Spain I am very busy with many tasks related with teaching, editing, and coordinating. Here I can devote more time to my research. In addition, I value the opportunity to know better The Netherlands, a country whose history is of great interest to me. I like to observe people’s behavior, speak with natives or foreign-born persons who have lived here for many years, visit museums, and watch buildings and impressive river and maritime infrastructures. All seems to me very interesting. I have even started to learn Dutch!

How did you start researching pensions? 

I began studying the Spanish pension system when the concern about the system’s financial sustainability was intensifying, i.e. at the end of the 1990s. In Spain most pension experts are economists. The topic of the future of pension systems has not attracted much attention among sociologists and political scientists. Economists have done an excellent job in figuring out the impact of demographic tendencies, changing macroeconomic variables and different reform options, but they have not paid much attention to the institutional settings, and the political and social dynamics that facilitate or hamper reforms. They provide necessary, but not sufficient knowledge to understand why pension reform is an extremely difficult policy realm and to identify the political and social factors on which stable and effective policy changes depend. 

Could you tell me about your current research?

I want to understand in detail the 2023 pension reform enacted in The Netherlands: The Future of Pensions Act. I think pension experts in South European countries should focus more on cases showing “successful reform stories”. The Dutch pension system is one of the best rated in the world. The last Mercer Global Pension Index ranks it first of 47 pension systems. Its distinguished position is often explained as the result of an advantageous design combining a strong first pillar (pay-as-you go financed, flat-rate benefits for residents) and a solid and well-developed second pillar (pre-funded employment pension schemes encompassing ca. 90% of the working population). But this argument tends to underestimate that the system has faced very significant challenges during the last decades: not only population ageing, but also tough financial crises (in 2001-2003 and 2008-2010) and changes in the labor market with growing atypical forms of employment. Nevertheless, compared to other European countries, the Netherlands has been more effective in the attempt to reform pensions with the backing of political majorities, social actors, pension funds and pension experts. This is what in my opinion deserves special attention and explanation. Regrettably, Spanish pension reforms approved during the last decades provide a good example of the opposite case.

Have you encountered any new interesting insights into your research during your stay?

Since the Future of Pensions Act establishes the transition for all second-pillar pensions from a defined benefit to a defined contribution system, I considered it a path-breaking reform. However, one of the most interesting insights I have gained during my stay since September is that the pension reform is not generally perceived as paradigm-shifting because second-pillar pensions were already evolving in the direction of defined contribution schemes, at least since the beginning of this century. The commitment to defined-benefit pensions was particularly weakened by conditional indexation. Furthermore, the new pensions act incorporates solidarity and collective elements that are not habitual in purely defined contribution systems. Thus, the impact of the change has been dampenedthrough previous incremental changes in the regulatory framework of second-pillar pensions as well as through an innovative legislation.

I would have probably known earlier about these relevant aspects if the international press had provided sufficient information about the last Dutch pension reform. Hence, being proficient in the Dutch language would have helped me a lot in this regard since I could have resorted to national media. I do not renounce to acquire this skill!  

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