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Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Employment Today Magazine

An age-old conundrum

The social and economic benefits of employing older workers are well established, yet little is being done at an organisational level to support them remaining in the workforce, says Dr Barbara Myers.

Older workers have long been the focus of discussion among employers, government policy analysts and researchers. Terms such as the “grey tsunami”, and the “grey quake” have graced newspaper and magazine headlines in recent years, yet research tells us that employers and organisations are largely unprepared for predicted labour and skill shortages in many professions and sectors where there is a high median age.

Older people are more diverse in their life pathways than any other age cohort so it cannot be taken for granted that they will extend their working lives. Employers and organisations need to develop long-term policies and actual practices that not only retain and train older workers, but also recruit them, recognising the unique contribution that they bring to the workplace.


Population ageing in New Zealand is occurring at a slightly lower rate than in Europe. New Zealands’ population is expected to rise by one million by 2051 and at that point 1.37 million will be classified as being “older” (55 years or more).

In the labour market, older New Zealanders have some of the highest rates of participation among OECD countries and it is predicted that older women will continue to remain or return to the workforce at a greater rate than older men. This is partly due to women’s longer life expectancy, but there are other reasons why older worker participation rates have increased since the mid-1990s from approximately two percent to 15 percent for women and from eight percent to 25 percent for men.

Public policy changes delaying age eligibility for superannuation, the axing of a compulsory retirement age and the outlawing of age discrimination have also driven the increase in older workers “in” or “seeking” employment. Currently one in five older workers aged 65 plus years are in part-time or full-time work and this is expected to increase to one in three by 2051.


The populist story around older workers is that employers will increasingly seek to employ them, but it seems that government policy is driving this discussion to a greater extent than business leaders and employers. At the organisational level, most employers acknowledge the issue, but little is being done in terms of organisational policy and practice.

This lack of long-term planning is reflected in a recent Commission for Financial Capability survey where 80 percent of employer respondents said they had no older worker policies or strategies in place.

The same study also reported a number of stereotypes that some employers and others associate with older workers. There is much evidence countering these stereotypes, but perceptions linger that older workers are inflexible and unable to adapt to changing job roles, pose a higher health risk and have higher levels of absenteeism than younger workers.

A New Zealand EEO Trust/New Zealand Work Research Institute report stated that employers often view the older worker in a negative light and urged employers and the government to work together on this issue, pointing to the “false assumptions and stereotypes about their performance … the most pernicious of these is that older workers cost more … can’t adapt to workplace changes and new technology, perform more poorly than younger workers, and represent a poor investment in training.”

Labour market participation rates have been increasing for older workers over the last few years, but it is possible that this is due to government policy initiatives relating to pension and retirement ages, rather than to employer initiatives. Researchers McGregor and Gray suggest that the real extent of discriminatory employment practices against older workers remains under-researched and Dr Jackie Blue, the Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner agrees, suggesting that age related discriminatory behaviour is under-reported in the workplace. Although there are valid arguments identifying older workers as an important source of labour, they are often a focus in organisation restructuring and when faced with such practices, they may prefer to withdraw or retire from the workplace.

While employment statistics tell us that there are increasing numbers of older persons participating in the labour market, many of whom are working part-time, what remains unknown is how many more older workers might participate if the workplace reality of organisational policy and practice were to match the rhetoric of government policy.

Considering the lack of preparedness of some employers, it is possible that older workers already in the labour market may experience discrimination or may not be managed appropriately. It is conceivable that older people may not be in the labour market because they cannot find appropriate work. Thus, any discussion on older workers needs to look beyond labour market participation statistics, trends and predictions, and consider other attitudinal and structural factors.


There are many aspects that influence extended labour market participation or withdrawal that impact on the decisions of older persons to continue to work or not. The EEO Trust identified financial circumstances as a significant reason for staying or leaving the workforce.

A number of other reports in recent years identify inflexible work situations, a lack of appropriate and quality job opportunities, an inconsistency between individual skill levels and changing skill requirements, frequent organisational change processes, rigorous performance measures and monitoring, and (for women especially) the intention of partners and family-related caregiving responsibilities as key reasons for leaving the workforce.

In contrast, part-time work, flexible hours and opportunities to transition to retirement over time were significant reasons for staying in the workforce. Extended leave, fair and equal pay, working from home, interesting and challenging work, job redesign, being needed, respected and valued and experiencing reduced stress were all identified as important factors that would encourage older workers to extend their working lives.


Recruitment is an area that seems especially challenging for the older worker. The state sector and small and medium enterprises appear to be more receptive to the idea of recruiting older workers, yet recruitment practices targeting older workers are often the lowest ranked in the order of organisational older worker HR priorities.

In my doctorate study on older women workers who had returned from an “overseas experience” I found many of the women were highly frustrated with the recruitment process. Their pre “OE” employment and skills were often dismissed and the development of new skills while working overseas was often not seen as relevant or transferable.

The women spoke about ageism, the lack of respect for what they had achieved in their careers and the inability of some employers to take them seriously.

I found it very difficult to find a job … employers weren’t interested. In fact I went to more than one interview where it was very clear within the first five/ten minutes that I really wasn’t going to get the job, and both interviews became, ‘well that’s not really relevant … now tell me about where you have been’ … and ‘you know we were thinking of going there for our holiday’.”

Several of the older women struggled to secure a position and eventually settled for anything to earn some money. Under-employment was a major problem and the older women were forced to take roles that did not build on their previous experience and were lacking challenge or interest.

The job has been a complete disaster. I’ve done nothing that I could put on my CV. I’ve done nothing of value … I’ve been totally under-utilised and under-employed.”

When organisations did not meet their expectations, the women decided to exit paid work and do voluntary work, study, community work or follow their personal interests. For these older women, it was more important to have autonomy and respect in the workplace and if that was not possible they were not prepared to stay. Instead they adjusted their lifestyle to cope with their reduced financial circumstances.

It allows me to avoid having to go to the workplace here, because at my age I find it deeply unsatisfactory.”

Discussion on the benefits of employing older workers falls into four broad areas: retention of knowledge, skills and experience; intergenerational knowledge transfer; connecting with the ageing population through client service and addressing workplace diversity needs. The first two areas perhaps explain why organisations focus on the retention of older workers at the expense of recruitment.

Individuals take career breaks throughout the life course for various reasons. With increased life expectancy, it is feasible that more older people will take a later life career break, with the intention to return to the workforce for several more years. Employers need to take a more proactive role in organisational recruitment policy and practice if these older workers are to be successful in re-entering the labour market. The experiences recounted by some of the older women interviewed indicate that there is work to be done in the area of recruitment practices targeting older workers.

I’m 62, only when I look in the mirror. I don’t actually see myself ever as not working—I don’t know. So what I do from here, I have no idea but society tells me that at 62 there is no job for you in New Zealand.”


The ageing workforce is a longstanding conundrum. We know there is a gap between employer preparedness and government policy. We also know that there appears to be a gap between employer and organisational awareness of the issue and actual workplace practices. Findings released in April 2018 by Diversity Works on organisational engagement and recruitment of older workers do not engender confidence that this situation will change soon. In fact the figures reflect a major decline in all forms of engagement with older workers over a six-month period.

The social and economic benefits of employing older workers are well established. What is needed now is a greater focus not just on organisational policy, but also ensuring that organisational practices are tailored to the heterogeneity of the older worker cohort.

Older workers are at a unique stage of life. They have diverse work goals and they wish to be valued in the workplace. While there are employers who are well prepared, they are in a minority.

This article is a timely reminder for those who are not prepared. These employers and other stakeholders are urged to work with older workers in a spirit of employer-employee reciprocity to develop a broad array of older worker strategies that support and enhance individual and organisational success and wellbeing.

DR BARBARA MYERS is a senior research lecturer in AUT’s Department of Management.

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