Flexible working conditions – what are they and how do they benefit older workers?

Judith A. Davey  

Workforce ageing has emerged as a significant issue since the 1990s, but another crucial issue facing the NZ economy now is labour and skill shortages. By 2030, more people will be retiring than entering the workforce if recent trends continue. This shortage issue has come to the fore again, reinforced by the impact of the Covid19 pandemic – lack of immigrant workers, people away from work because of sickness or to avoid contamination, hospitality cut back from lack of custom. We have the ironic situation of labour shortages coexisting with very low unemployment rates.

Rates of participation in the workforce by older people are already increasing. Longer lives and better health in later life provide an opportunity for staying on in paid work. Between ages 65 and 69 over half of NZ adults have some level of paid work, even if part-time. This is facilitated by the universality of NZ Superannuation which has no work test. Then there are concerns about the cost of living, about declining homeownership  – many older people still paying mortgages, and the proportion in rental accommodation also increasing – as are rents. So many older people have financial motives for staying in paid work.

In addition to these incentives, it is clear that meaningful and appropriate work is beneficial to the well-being of older people. Remaining in or re-entering the workforce can have a positive psychological impact for older people The habits of work routine are beneficial to a sense of wellbeing and accomplishment; work provides camaraderie and is linked to self-worth as opposed to the potential social exclusion of retirement.

A significant solution to the skills shortage crisis, which is receiving very little attention, is encouraging more older people to remain in the workforce beyond the age of eligibility NZS, Extending the economically active life of older people will bring both social and economic benefits.

Flexible working conditions

If more older people are encouraged to remain in the workforce to fill the gaps, they need appropriate working conditions – working as and when they prefer. Flexible work practices are essential, including longer breaks and holidays; shorter hours, on a daily, weekly or annual basis; choices about night or shift work, and the option of being ‘on call’. New Zealand has legislation providing the ‘right to request’ flexible work arrangements, subject to employers’ agreement. The right was initially only for employees with caring responsibilities but is now extended to all. When evaluating the Employment Relations (Flexible Working Arrangements) Amendment Act 2007, it was found that a high proportion of requests were approved and only 56% related to caring responsibilities.

But the Covid 19 pandemic has changed what is meant by flexible working conditions. This was clear in our current research, through Massey University, on how employers with large workforces manage workforce ageing. When we started this –in 2019 -and asked about flexible working conditions the response included all items on the list above.

But now when we ask the same question the answer is always about the ability to work from home – how it is arranged, how communication is kept up, and who can do it[1]. This allows most work to continue even in a pandemic situation. But is this the type of flexible working conditions that older people want? Given the serious effects of loneliness and social isolation, an older person remaining in paid work or starting a new job may not want to be confined to their home. They may want the stimulation of “getting out of the house” and social interaction with co-workers. Having older workers on hand will provide advantages to employers, – ensuring a return on investment in training and accumulated experience; promoting diversity and balance in the workforce; and reflecting the age profile of customers and clients.

[1] And perhaps how distraction caused by domestic cats, dogs, toddlers, and, in my case, abseilers descending on ropes to clean windows, can be minimised.

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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1 Response to Flexible working conditions – what are they and how do they benefit older workers?

  1. Andrea Dorn says:

    For me, my self -esteem WAS my work. When I finished teaching, I felt as though I had ”lost a limb” in a way. We ”more mature” people cherish camaraderie , which Judith mentioned , and if we could work longer there would be far less visits to the GP, for example, because we simply would not have the time to think about our health , or, lack of it. When one is older and lives alone, it is very easy to ”over think” many situations and with no-one to bounce ideas off, it’s difficult and lonely if a problem arises. In the skills area, you just cannot beat ”life skills!”


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