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Whenever sharemarkets nosedive, the superannuation industry comes out with a familiar refrain.

Whenever sharemarkets nosedive, the superannuation industry comes out with a familiar refrain.

"Remain calm," we're told. "Try to avoid being swept up in the breathless media reporting, and remember: super is a long-term investment."

This is all very well, but not foolproof. As the economist John Maynard Keynes observed: "In the long run, we are all dead."

More seriously, the past few years have been very poor for super funds, even if we ignore month-to-month changes.

Over the past five years, for instance, balanced funds in which most people have their savings have lost 0.2 per cent. For growth funds, which favour riskier assets, the performance has been even more dismal, with a 1.74 per cent fall. Only the ultra-conservative cash funds have posted solid returns.

A five-year losing streak may not matter too much to someone in their 20s, with four decades of work ahead of them. But it matters a lot if you're approaching retirement.

So how is this run of weakness affecting people's decisions about their super? Has there been a big switch towards more conservative funds?

There are certainly signs the public is increasingly lukewarm towards traditional super funds.

Most obviously, many people have stopped putting in extra contributions, on top of the sums employers must put in on workers' behalf.

Voluntary contributions have fallen in most quarters over the past four years. Investors chose to put $600 million less into their super in the March quarter compared with a year earlier, the Financial Services Council says.

Aside from contributing less, some have also moved their savings into more conservative types of accounts. Most strikingly, the share of super fund investors to choose a "balanced" fund has slumped from 72.6 per cent in 2008 to 65.6 per cent today, SuperRatings says.

At the same time, the share of people putting their super into "cash" has almost doubled (albeit from a low base) from 2 per cent to 3.9 per cent.

Overall, these are fairly modest trends, and it seems most are hanging in there with traditional types of super accounts. But if returns don't improve, the slow drift away from classic super funds is likely to continue.

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