The goals and challenges ahead for OMERS' new CPO

Celine Chiovitti explains her philosophy of service and the issues she sees ahead for DB pension plans and retirement in Canada

The goals and challenges ahead for OMERS' new CPO

Celine Chiovitti believes that pensions are a form of social infrastructure. The newly named Chief Pension Officer (CPO) at OMERS began her career working in public service, first for the City of Etobicoke and then the City of Toronto. She worked in public facing roles and viewed her work as service to the public. A child of immigrants who never had pensions themselves, she saw in her own public servant pension plan the idea that people can accomplish so much more working together than they can on their own. That philosophy carried her into a career at OMERS and to her new role as CPO.

Chiovitti now sees pensions at an inflection point. Canada is “greying” rapidly as its population ages. The cost of living crisis has made all Canadians more concerned about their day to day and less able to focus on the long-term. Defined benefit pension plans like OMERS are far less common and widespread than they once were. Retirement seems to be slipping out of reach for many and we risk consigning our elders to poverty in their golden years. Chiovitti is convinced that pensions can stand against these demographic and economic tides.

“Defined Benefit Pensions give the average individual access to professional management and the knowledge that when they’re ready to retire they have access to something that will be payable for their life. They’re not ever going to outlive their savings,” Chiovitti says. “It’s not about getting rich, it’s about having access to a decent standard of living.”

Chiovitti has three core goals as CPO of OMERS, which she thinks can help address some of the acute issues facing her 600,000 members as well as Canadians as a whole. The first is to advocate for pension plans, raising their profile and underscoring the intrinsic value of pensions. The second is to reconsider retirement, opening conversations about what retirement should look like as Canadians live longer. Her final goal is to highlight the additional positive social value that the delivery of pensions provides.

Advocating for pensions in Canada is not work that Chiovitti can do alone. She believes it will take a multi-stakeholder approach for Canadians to recognize how pensions can help alleviate the looming crises we now face. In an aging society, with more individuals aged over 65 than under 14, the stresses placed by mass retirement and extended longevity will become more and more apparent. Children of aging parents may be forced to bear unforeseen financial burdens as their parents’ own savings fail to last.

Chiovitti believes that pension plans can play a role in preventing these outcomes. While defined benefit pension plans are the “gold standard” she says that any push for employer sponsored pension plans is a positive one. She thinks that as this problem becomes more acute we will see greater advocacy for and by Canadians. In her role now, she can call for greater pension access and meaningful reform, while showcasing OMERS as an example that Canadians will want to strive towards.

Advocating for pensions also means talking about how retirement should and can look. The current pension model was built at a time when retirement might last ten to fifteen years before a member passed away. Chiovitti says that OMERS’ oldest living member is 108 and has collected a pension for over 40 years. While an extreme example, the fact of increasing longevity means the traditional retirement model needs to be reconsidered.

For Chiovitti that means preparing her members for their retirement, both financially and conceptually. Canadians at retirement age may not want to end their working lives entirely. They may want a new chapter instead, one that could involve a slowdown in work, or a career change. That means they continue to contribute to the economy and save for their future, while pursuing other forms of fulfillment or dreams they always had. That could come in the form of mentorship or volunteering too. Through that work and continued engagement many of these individuals can maintain the social connections we know are so crucial to a healthy life in old age. Achieving that reconsideration also means combatting preconceived notions and bias around older workers, and creating workplaces that allow all employees to thrive..

Reimaging how we think about retirement, and creating opportunities for older workers to thrive, are among the many positive social impacts Chiovitti wants to achieve in her role as CPO. On a fundamental level she sees pension plans like OMERS as providing a level of social infrastructure that contributes positively to the economy while maintaining the quality of life of their members. But that is not all. As a pension plan, OMERS invests in ways that incorporate long-term thinking and has committed to a climate action plan, an area that is of growing interest to plan members, including millennials and gen Z members.

Chiovitti’s own appointment as CPO represents a step towards that social progress. As a woman in a major leadership role, she has already contributed a perspective that has helped her members. In OECD countries, women earn about 26 percent less pension income than their male counterparts, due in part to salary discrepancy and leaves taken. Chiovitti has already begun work at OMERS to make it easier to purchase leaves, with a focus on pregnancy/parental leaves that predominantly impact women. This change will support them to more easily purchase back any future pension income they lost by taking leave. She says that work points to the importance of diversity in this industry. By elevating leaders of different backgrounds, with lived experience of different needs, the needs of the whole membership can be better addressed.

The goals Chiovitti has set are significant. They mean addressing some of the crucial crises of our age. Yet Chiovitti seems ready to tackle these topics, to do them with a smile, and to maintain a philosophy of service throughout the hard work now before her.

“I hope that people start to look at the good we can do collectively. I believe that together we are so much stronger than we are individually,” Chiovitti says. “I’ve never been more excited to be where we are than today. The world is shifting and part of that is scary, there’s so much uncertainty in the world today. But I feel like we are at a pivotal time where we can come together and make this world a better place. I know that sounds a bit corny, but truly I believe that.

“I will never be comfortable with the fact that people are just going to be left on their own. I will never be comfortable seeing elder poverty. I don’t think Canada can live with that. So I think we have the ability to come together and shape a future that is more equitable, more accessible, and has more financial resilience in it. But we need to come together and do it together.”