The mature worker is coming of age

The average age of the New Zealand workforce is increasing, a change that will affect all organisations and employers - whether corporate, SME or public sector. On the face of it we seem to be doing quite well at managing this big shift – at 20%, New Zealand has one of the highest older worker rates in the OECD (Dr Jackie Blue, EEO, Human Rights Commissioner, 2015), so we must be doing something right? However, employers “ain’t seen nothing yet” and the sheer growth in numbers of people over 45 years old will mean a fundamental change in how we manage, accept and welcome older people in the workplace. And while the 20% statistic sounds promising, there is evidence organisations aren’t adequately prepared for what’s to come.

 

This may sound negative, but there are benefits – older workers are knowledgeable, experienced and skilled, they are reliable, trustworthy and have a great work ethic. They are also flexible and eager to help, but they struggle to find work despite there being a skills shortage. To us this doesn’t make sense - why is it these two groups, people who want to stay working, and employers who need skills, aren’t better connected?

 

This blog will look at answering these two important questions and along the way dispel some myths. But first a reality check.  Employers everywhere, and not just in New Zealand, are going to have to get their heads around employing more people in the latter years of their working life.

 

It is the age of the older worker

There are unavoidable shifts in demographics that employers need to take note of and understand. A 2013 report from Statistics New Zealand estimated 26% of New Zealand residents were aged 55+ and this was projected to grow from 1.1 million in 2011 (25% of the population), to 1.7 million in 2036, and 2.2 million in 2061, a startling 37% of the population. This trend reflects general ageing meaning the number of people in the labour force over 55 years in age will also increase and is estimated to grow from 485,600 in 2011 to 823,400 in 20362, a 70% rise.

 

To explain this most people point the finger at the baby-boomer generation, but there are many other contributing reasons such as better health and health care, rising life expectancy, the need to fund longer retirements and lower fertility rates. If demographics wasn’t a big enough reason, numbers are also being boosted by changing attitudes to retirement - fewer people actually want a retirement of all leisure and no work, and retirement is regarded as boring by many (New Zealand Herald, 3 Feb 2017). These people want to stay involved and active, as well as keep some money coming in. But the usual ways of finding opportunities using networks of contacts, local media and online job sites are ineffective, meaning they become invisible at a time when they need to be more obvious.

 

Dispelling the myth of older workers being expensive

One of the main reasons people cite for not employing older workers is the cost with the belief they are more expensive. However, people over the age of 55 are very realistic about pay with expected rates being comparable to those between the ages of 25-55 years, for any particular role. Older workers are also increasingly flexible about part-time opportunities meaning employers don’t have to fund a full-time position. Like many people they are part of the gig economy where people want flexibility from a variety, or portfolio of roles, leaving time open for leisure activities if they wish.

For employers, this also provides a contingent workforce to access for the ebb and ow of projects and workloads.

 

Dispelling the myth of older workers not being tech-savvy

There is also the impression that older workers are not technically skilled. Naturally, they weren’t born in the internet and social media age but a majority have embraced technology and are quick learners. Those in the 55-65 year old bracket will have spent the last 20 years experiencing the development of the internet, digital and social media age. So to say they aren’t IT savvy is incorrect, they just have a different skill set. They also have the benet of experience before technology became so prevalent and this blend between pre and post-internet era is invaluable.

According to Research New Zealand (2015) 79% of 55+ year olds use a smartphone daily3. A Statistics NZ study in 2012 showed 25% of people 65 years and over are social media users and around half were internet, online bankers and shoppers. Current figures are likely to be higher.

 

How to change the workplace age balance

A Retirement Commission survey (2016) revealed two-thirds of 500 businesses agreed there’s a shortage of highly skilled workers in their sector and were worried experience and skills would leave on retirement5. Placing more focus on the older worker age group could alleviate this but like any change it takes time to understand, accept and then act upon. While there’s been a lot of discussion about the issue, what’s missing is a solution.

In addition to this, as a result of organisations never before having to grapple with an ageing workforce it’s not surprising to note that over 70% of businesses do not have specific strategies to manage workers over the age of 55 years (Diversity Works, 2016). The Retirement Commission put this figure even higher saying out of 500 companies 83% had no policies or strategies for workers over the age of 50. So we all have work to do to appreciate the change that’s happening and how this will affect workplaces everywhere.

 

In October 2015, Dr Jackie Blue encouraged employers to look hard at this sector of the population saying “employers who fail to plan are missing out on the economic benefits of our ageing workforce.”  Calls for action are not just happening in New Zealand. In the UK, Andy Briggs, the Government’s Business Champion for Older Workers said recently: “older workers can be written o by employers but we are asking them to carefully consider the overwhelming benefits of having a diverse and representative workforce.” (independent.co.uk – February 2017.  There are some organisations who feel youthful vibrancy fits their brand or their culture, but there are also many who see knowledge, experience, skill, reliability and trust as very appealing attributes for their team. Diversity is an oft-discussed subject but usually about gender, race and sexuality but in the future age diversity is going to become more prevalent as a way to provide balance.

 

So what is the solution?

We’ve highlighted that the older age bracket is going to become a more critical pool for talent in the future – there’s no avoiding it - 88% of people want to work past 65 years so all employers will start to hear more from them. What’s been missing in this debate is an easy way to connect employers to people in this age group who are willing, able and highly skilled. Wise Ones has been developed to help employers find these people using an online exchange that connects you to a growing pool of very able talent. We look forward to being of service.

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