More older people in paid work – is this anything new?

Judith Davey 12/01/18

We hear a lot about people staying on in paid work after the age of eligibility for New Zealand Superannuation (I get cross when I hear people talking about the “age of retirement” when there isn’t one!). Is this a good thing – for themselves, for the economy and for the nation as a whole? Well, I have written about this myself, see my blogs in mid-2015. The numbers of both men and women aged 65 plus who are in paid work have increased rapidly recently and this is expected to continue. But then I wonder – what about the past? What was the situation then?

I found some census figures from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with data on number of men and women in various occupations. Both sexes were quaintly divided into “breadwinners” and “non-breadwinners” or dependents (sic). No prizes for guessing the predominant sex composition of each category! These figures excluded Maori, and I have no way to correct that. I have added a footnote for those who would like to know more about early censuses in New Zealand.

Throughout the 1891-1911 period, females accounted for just under half of the European population. This grew to 50% in 1916 – probably because many men were abroad in the First World War. Females accounted for a smaller percentage of the 65 plus population, varying around 40%.

Non-breadwinners included “wives, relatives and others, if employed at all, in household and other pursuits for which payment is not usually made; also children and others being educated and persons supported by public or private charity or detained in penal institutions”.

How many older people were in the workforce then?

To approach this question you have to make a few assumptions, and so my answers can only be tentative.

• The occupation categories include one called “indefinite” which includes anyone “living upon incomes awarded for services rendered at some previous period, or upon incomes the source of which is not perfectly defined.” This would include people living on pensions, annuities or savings and not really in the workforce. So I have left this group out of my workforce category.

• To compare the proportion of people 65 plus in the workforce with the proportion of the total population, you have to make a stab at what could be called the “working age population”. I have taken this to be the 15-65 age group. There are young people in the 5-15 age group who are classified as working in the occupational groups. I am hoping that none of these were under about 13 (although I know my grandmother, born in 1882, went into “service” when she was 14).

• Just to remind you – there was no coverage of the Maori population.

Here are my results.

Percentage of males and females in the workforce, 1891-1921

Age groups 65 plus and 15-64 years


There is a very clear difference between the two age groups and between men and women workers. Males have much higher rates of participation, but the figures for men 65 plus are not far behind those for men in the general working age – 81% to 98% in 1891. In the same year 11% of women aged 65+ were in paid work and 25% of women in general (full table at end). So for older men certainly, a higher proportion were in paid work over the whole of this period than is the case now.

The graph lines diverge with time for both men and women. In 1921, still over 90% of working age men were in work, but for older men this had dropped to 70%. About a quarter of women were in the workforce throughout the period, but there was a drop for older women, down to 7% by 1921.

To explain these trends requires a look at the social and economic situation of early Pakeha New Zealand, along with retirement income provision . You may have some thought on explanations. I suggest that, in the mid-nineteenth century, European immigrants would mainly have been men well able to work and there would have been plenty for them to do. As the European population matured more people would have reached later life in the “colony”. The Pakeha population aged 65 plus had grown to 5% by 1921, for both sexes (from 2% in 1891). Sex role stereotypes were alive and well in the late 19th century and had not relaxed a great deal by the 1920s.

Next time I will go into the occupational breakdown by age and sex over the same historical period.


[1] The first general census in New Zealand was held in 1851, covering Europeans only (26,707) (information from the Encyclopaedia of NZ Vol.2, p.821-830). The 1877 Census Act called for censuses every 5 years. The first census of Maori was in 1857-1858 (56,049) but the results were uncertain and recorded only age, sex and subtribe. In 1926 a Maori census was taken in a more methodical way with a special schedule and Maori interpreters. The Maori schedule was dropped after 1945. Since then the census has covered everyone, with the same range of questions.

[2] In 1898, in a world first, New Zealand passed legislation to give a small means-tested pension from age 65 to people with few assets who were ‘of good moral character’.  Applicants had to have lived in New Zealand for the previous 25 years.

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