In my previous blog I listed the policies which can influence whether older people stay longer in paid work. How are we doing in New Zealand? Some existing policies do provide a positive environment for extending workforce participation, even though this may not have been their original aim . 1
New Zealand Superannuation
Having a universal pension which everyone aged 65 and over (with the residential requirements) receives at the same age, without having to make direct contributions to it, provides certainty and fairness. There is no work test for NZS. Anyone can receive it in addition to income from paid work (with appropriate income tax adjustments). This provides an opportunity for older people to supplement NZS with part-time paid work or income from self-employment, giving them a more comfortable standard of living. To withhold NZS would discourage people from paid work when they might be keen to continue.
No Compulsory Retirement
The Human Rights Act (HRA), which came into effect in February 1999, forbids employers from discriminating against suitably qualified job applicants on a number of grounds, including age. Its provisions apply to all aspects of employment – recruitment, selection, remuneration, training, promotion and termination, and bans compulsory retirement. But, how often do we hear “retirement age” referred to in the media and general conversation? The myth persists that there is a “retirement age” and this may influence people’s choices. When people get to 65, how often are they asked when they are going to retire? In reality, receiving NZS and leaving the workforce are in no way linked, as far as policy is concerned.
Action against age discrimination
Existing human rights legislation – the New Zealand Human Rights Act – provides a strong signal against age discrimination, but is this enough? Critics of the legislation believe that it does not change employers’ behaviour, but simply leads to more subtle and covert ways of discriminating. Stereotypical expectations surrounding age and retirement (“only a few years to go”, “younger people deserve the work more”) may discourage older workers from challenging ageism. Much wider action is needed, in the workplace but also in society at large, perhaps in the form of public education campaigns.
Flexible working conditions
New Zealand has legislation on flexible work through the Employment Relations (Flexible Working Arrangements) Amendment Act, 2007. At first the right to request flexible hours was confined to workers with caring responsibilities but now it has been extended to all workers. Access is, however, still at the employer’s discretion, so that making working conditions more suitable for older workers relies on employers’ decisions rather than policy.
The report card looks much less favourable in some other areas.
Age of eligibility for NZS
Government has a strong policy lever in the form of the age of eligibility for NZS. Raising the age from 65 would provide a very strong incentive to remain in paid work, as was the case in the 1990s when the age rose from 60 to 65. At the moment raising the age is not on the cards here although there is a lot of discussion around it, on either side.
Education and Retraining
Opportunities for education and (re)training for older workers are few and far between and this requires urgent attention. It is hardly fair to put older workers down because their skills are outdated if they have never had the opportunity to brush them up. Older workers are often overlooked in training and education. Government action on life-long learning received a setback with cuts to funding for adult education and restrictions on support for tertiary education. The question is – where should responsibility for this lie – with employers, government or the workers themselves? Or through some combination?
Government as employer
The public sector could act as a valuable role model, initiating policies to encourage higher workforce participation among older people and setting in place the working conditions which suit them. There is not a great deal of evidence that this is happening, despite Objective 9 of the Positive Ageing Strategy, which calls for the “elimination of ageism and the promotion of flexible work options.” The State Sector Act (1988) and Crown Entities Act (2004) apply “good employer” provisions to the public sector. But even so many government agencies do not have specific policies on managing an ageing workforce.
I asked the respondents in my recent research: “Do you think that the government is tackling the issue of workforce ageing effectively?” The general consensus was that they are not. There were calls for government to take the lead in discussions about the future of the workforce. Here are some quotes:
“Government is in the mind-set that it is too hard to handle.”
“Employment of older people is an issue for New Zealand – why don’t we put more effort into it?
All in all, the report card on policy settings relating to workforce ageing and older workers in New Zealand is likely to conclude with a common school report statement: “Could do better”.
Dr Judith A. Davey
Age Concern New Zealand voluntary policy advisor
Senior Research Associate, Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, Victoria University of Wellington
 The blogs draw on the findings of my contribution to the research project – Making Active Ageing a Reality – undertaken through the University of Waikato, funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.