What kind of work were older people doing in the 1891-1921 period?


Judith Davey

The descriptions of the occupational categories used in the censuses contain what we would consider outdated or even quaint language. They began “embracing all persons….” And continued as shown on the table below –



Change in categories over time

Throughout the 1891-1921 period the leading male occupations were the same for workers 65 plus and all male workers- primary production, industrial and commercial work. These three accounted for around 90% of older male workers, so the graph for older male workers is about the same in 1891 and 1921.

workforce graphs

The growth of workers in transport and communications work is masked when they are included under commercial. From 1896 this was a separate category and the number of males aged 65 plus engaged in this work grew from 378 in 1896 to 1064 in 1921 (nearly 300%).  Over the same period, the total male workforce in transport and communications also grew substantially. I am thinking that this had to do with the era of railway-building. In 1880 there was 2000km of railway in New Zealand, three-quarters in the South Island. The main trunk railway, from Wellington to Auckland, was built between 1885 and 1908.

The primary producer category continued to lead for older men, but the proportion fell as did the proportion in industrial work.

There was more change in the female categories. Although domestic work was among the three most common categories in all years (with the same for the female workers 65 plus) the proportion of all women in domestic work fell from 46% to 30% while the proportion of older women remained the same. Commercial work was important for older women, probably in retail trade, but industrial work dropped for women 65 plus. Work in the primary section remained important for both older men and older women, probably they were working on farms and in horticulture on family enterprises.

females better


In trying to analyse these trends, we must remember the “indefinite” category, which I excluded in the above calculations. This stayed about the same (2-3%) over the period I examined for all males. It was higher for all working-age women, but fell from 7.5% in 1891 to 2.6% in 1916.

There are more questions about the 65 plus age group. If there was no old age pension until 1898, why were just over half of Pakeha women in New Zealand in 1891 classified as “indefinite” (anyone “living upon incomes awarded for services rendered at some previous period, or upon incomes the source of which is not perfectly defined) rather than being dependent? Are there social historians out there who could help? Moving into the 20th century the proportion of older women in the indefinite category continued to be well over 40%. There are some indications in these figures that the availability of a pension was making “retirement” more possible for older men and women in New Zealand as the country moved into the 20th century.

About Age Concern New Zealand 'on research'

At the heart of everything Age Concern does is a passion to see older people experience well-being, respect, dignity, and to be included and valued. We support, inform and advise older people on issues such as access to health care, transport, housing, financial entitlements, and social opportunities. We also work to combat real problems in our society, like elder abuse and neglect, chronic loneliness and social isolation. We provide specialist services with trained and qualified professionals able to give expert advice and assistance. Age Concern is a charity and relies on the support of volunteers and public donations to do much of the work we do. To help us help older people, please consider making a donation of your time or money. To see how, visit www.ageconcern.org.nz
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