Public sector pensions: you should be so lucky

We are often told that the average publiic sector worker's pension isn't very high. But it's an awful lot higher than many private sector workers could ever hope for.

There's a letter in the Sunday Times's Money section that sums up a good many of our problems when it comes to both public sector debt and financial inequality. It is from a public sector worker and it is about his pension. He recognises in it that he is one of the "lucky ones". But let's look at just how lucky he is.

He is "51, married, in good health, with no mortgage and no dependants". That's pretty good for starters. But he also appears to be on the edge of retirement (in his early 50s!). That means he has a choice with his final salary pension: he can either take a lump sum now and an annual pension, or just go for a higher annual pension payment.

If he takes the former course, he gets £182,521 upfront (tax-free, let's not forget) and then £25,981 a year (inflation-linked forever). If he takes thelatter, he gets £34,642 a year (also inflation-linked forever). He wonders which he should go for.

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The paper (represented by the lovely William Kay) suggests the latter on the basis that investing and making returns on the lump sum (should it not be needed immediately) is easier said than done. But when I read the letter, it wasn't the dilemma that interested me but thesize of the actual sums involved.

How much do you reckon it would cost to buy, in your 50s, an inflation-linked annuity of nearly £35,000 every year?

You won't find an instant answer to this on the internet. Most annuity calculators don't deal with pension pots of over £1m, or do any calculations involving retiring before 55. Here's the Legal & General calculator. It tells us that if you have £999,000, you are 55, and you want an inflation-linked pension payment, you will currently get a mere £21,000 off them.

Skim around the other calculators (, perhaps) and you will find that, in general, every £100,000 of pension pot used from age 55 generates around £2,200 of inflation-linked income. So this lucky man's pension isworth over £1.5m. How many private sector workers will ever see that kind of money?

Annuity rates are knocking around historical lows at the moment (they will one day rise again), but even so, I'm pretty sure that most Moneyweek readers, despite being generally affluent just won't.

PS We are also often told that we shouldn't make such a fuss about public sector pensions, because the average pension payment is only around £8,000. Fine. But how big a lump sum would I need as a private sector worker to get £8,000 (inflation-linked forever from 55) at the moment? Around £365,000. Some MoneyWeek readers might get to that. But not that many. It's an awful lot of money.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.