More than 30 years after their struggle, they are middle-aged and, as Oscar Wilde once observed, mortgaged to life. In the workplace they face uncertain futures, displaced in part by… children of the creche.
The one certainty here and overseas is that the proportion of this ageing group will grow, and with this bulge will come implications for the workplace, for employment and unemployment.
Massey University’s Professor of History David Thomson has surveyed overseas and local literature and seen some disturbing results. He finds that employment after 45 is shrinking; that substantial fractions of men and women have little significant paid employment through life and the portion of life being spent out of paid work is large and growing.
One option to deal with the issue is to make working on longer much more attractive, though Thomson says this will require much more deliberate effort than New Zealand has contemplated so far.
“A number of Northern European countries are now actively – if still tentatively – exploring ‘elder-friendly’ work practices, and these experiments should be watched carefully,” he says.
“Denmark subsidises employers who take on or retain older staff. The Netherlands has recently given everyone the right to shift to part-time hours of their own choosing, while staying in the same employment and position. Others are trying active support for the older self-employed, or longer leave or part-year employment for older workers, or substantial sabbaticals for refreshment as well as re-training.”
But what is happening to older workers here? According to Thomson, the short answer is that paid employment after about 45 is high in New Zealand by OECD standards and extremely high in the case of women.
But the overall pattern he has detected for older workers (50-64) is of continuing decline in employment after the age of 50 – whether policy has been to encourage or discourage this.
That decline also has implications for the new knowledge-based society currently being pursued as government policy. Take an industry as fundamental as clothing. For the past decade this sector has been decimated by up to 20,000 job losses partly because of cheap imports but also because of an emphasis on volume and cheap labour – often found offshore.
But recently with renewed appreciation of the profitability of high end markets, things are changing. We have new and talented fashion designers – but fewer machinists with the skills, experience and apprenticeship training to cut these garments. By and large these are older workers who survived the cuts, according to Clothing Workers secretary Maxine Gay.
“These women are now getting older and there has been very little in the way of skills transfer to younger workers,” she says.
The trend is not unique to New Zealand. The New York Times reports that after decade of economic expansion, companies are finding it difficult to find skilled employees. US ‘compensation consult-ants’ say retaining older workers particularly those who are skilled, is becoming more attractive. It’s an indication that the premature shedding of older workers may have short-terms gains but can bring with it the potential for the waste of institutional or corporate memory. None of this helps the growth of knowledge society.
In survey of 2063 employers, professor Judy McGregor from Massey University’s College of Business touched on this policy ideal. Her report entitled ‘Employment of the Older Worker’ released in February this year, canvassed both employers and union members and revealed the complexity of societal and workplace attitudes to ageing. In McGregor’s section on employers she left open the question of whether employers could, or should do more.
Somebody should. As Thomson points out, the evidence – along with some cosy but questionable assumptions – is clear. Through the last half century there were around 17 persons aged 65+ to every 100 adults under the age of 65. That ratio will climb sharply to about 40 to 100 by 2030 according to Thomson.
Around the world governments are now taking variety of measures to deal with the issue. They include encouraging more people to get into employment, especially women and to stay in it longer thus widening the tax base, reducing the numbers seeking state support and raising the chances for private saving. Thomson also notes shaping of expectations which say that working on longer into older age is good for everyone. But he questions some of the underlying assumptions about the supply of jobs and earnings that might let all of this cost-shifting happen.
He says these include belief that people will be willing to work on longer into old age than they do currently; that employers will agree to employ older persons and to retrain them as this becomes necessary; that rapidly growing numbers of jobs will become available, especially for the middle-aged or ‘young old’.
“Those in their 50s and 60s are the fastest growing large chunk of our population. Through the 1970s and 1980s, those aged 50-64 numbered about 400,000, but this will reach 800,000 by the end of this present decade,” he says.
“In short, powerful assumptions about work abound – and there’s the rub, the dilemma for ageing societies everywhere. For 30 years now the global market has been moving massively, in quite different directions, at stark odds with our comfortable assumptions about what will – must – happen as we age.”
Thomson says the amounts of paid work have been shrinking relative to population, across the OECD world. In New Zealand in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, there were 62 or 63 full-time jobs for every 100 men and women aged 15-64 years; by the mid 1990s this had fallen to 55. The remaining jobs had, according to Thomson, become increasingly insecure, irregular and poorly paid for large parts of the population, confined to shortening fractions of our extending lives, and all but unavailable across much of life to growing segments of society.
“Men, especially past the age of 45, ethnic minorities and the less skilled have been the prime ‘losers’ in this shrinking job market so far, and there is little reason to think that any of this is about to change,” he said in paper for Super-summit in May this year.
It’s enough to make the middle aged race go out and buy lawn-mowing franchise – except so many already have. According to Thomson the self-employed sector has grown noticeably, more so in New Zealand than in any other OECD country.
“More specifically, self-employment under about age 45 has continued its long run decline, but has reversed and now grows sharply among those past the age of 45,” he says.
The middle-aged have their own voice and it is heard most clearly in McGregor’s two part survey of employers, and union members. The first part covered 3911 workers aged 55 and over in the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union.
The survey showed there was both positive and negative discrimination in the workplace. Workers were asked whether they had ever received more favourable treatment at work than other workers because of their age. Only 7.7 percent said “yes” with 92.3 percent stating “no”.
On the positive side older workers received more favourable treatment in physical activities like heavy lifting; they were also excused from long 12-hour shifts and from working outside in extreme weather. Others described less favourable or discriminatory treatment on the basis of their age. strong theme emerged over opportunities and selection for training.
Some of the responses: “just assumed I wouldn’t be interested in retraining”; “wouldn’t train me because of my age, too expensive at my age to train was the answer”; “restriction on re-training on computers”. Managers’ remarks: “people over the age of 35 cannot be retrained”.
Some reported being bypassed for promotion for less capable younger workers. Others said they were repeatedly asked when they were going to retire. Early retirem
Employment firm Seek recently launched bilingual search technology allowing job seekers to search the platform in either English or te reo Māori. By Meeral Gulabdas. Genuine representation and diversity of