NZIM : Coming of Age – The generation Y and baby boomer nexus

New Zealand Institute of Management judges were again interrogating the nation’s brightest and best young executives last month, as they have for the past 11 years. They were choosing one from three regional finalists who will go on to win the coveted mantle of NZIM/Eagle Technology Young Executive of the Year at the Deloitte/Management magazine Top 200 Awards in Auckland next month.
The Young Executive of the Year Awards are part and parcel of NZIM’s commitment to identifying and applauding excellence and outstanding achievement among the nation’s up-and-coming leaders and managers who are 35 or younger.
And over the years, the judges have chosen some of this country’s most outstanding young people as award finalists who, in turn, have gone on to become equally outstanding older leaders and managers. Individuals like Barbara Chapman, ASB marketing guru, who is now in Australia working as chief executive with her mentor Ralph Norris; Russell Stanners, now CEO of Vodafone; Stefan Lepionka of Charlie’s Juice fame; Theresa Gattung, Telecom CEO; the NZ Rugby Union’s Therese Walsh and host of other equally successful but perhaps not so high profile individuals.
NZIM increasingly sees its contribution to lifting the standards and competency of management in New Zealand starting at an earlier age – secondary school, for instance. The Institute is now delivering programmes to around 80 colleges throughout the country and then working with an ever-growing population of tertiary students who are turning to formal NZIM programmes to advance their careers.
It’s all about meeting the expectations of generation Y – the ambitious and aggressive under 35s who are bent on making it in their careers while simultaneously insisting on an attractive lifestyle. These experience-hungry, reward-driven individuals are our future and that is why NZIM is focusing on helping them to realise their potential.
But the members of generation Y represent only about 20 percent of our population. There is bigger group out there at the other end of the spectrum that New Zealand must also be concerned about. And the challenge is to bridge some of the gap that exists between these two age brackets in our society. Both, in different ways, are our future.
I was part of small team that made up an Employment of Older Workers Summit in Wellington last month. Our deliberations prompted me to think about the issues that exist across our economy’s management age span. Generation Y is unquestionably our future, but almost 40 percent of New Zealanders that are 55 or more are in paid employment and 75 percent of them work fulltime. And, for the moment, it is an expanding pool. In fact, it represents an ocean of wisdom and experience which, with all the energy and determination in the world, young managers cannot possible capture overnight.
How to make the connections? Awareness of the issues and some changes in prevailing attitudes are start point. The fact is, there is an expanding number of baby boomers in our society and they are our pool of older managers and workers in general. They are also working longer. New Zealand has relatively high employment rates for people 55 and over compared with many other countries. We rank seventh out of 30 other OECD countries.
And the trend is increasing, driven by our steady economic growth, decline in unemployment, changes in social expectations about retirement age, the changing role of women in the workforce and the increase in the age of eligibility for New Zealand Superannuation. In fact our own internal study looking at issues around workplace productivity identified the urgent need to utilise this significant pool of older workers.
According to the New Zealand Institute for Research on Aging (NZiRA) at Wellington’s Victoria University, employers must adjust to our aging workforce and our declining “availability of younger workers”. That calls for building on the strengths of both younger and older workers.
But research conducted by global recruitment company, Hudson Group, suggests more than half the organisations they surveyed do not believe that New Zealand employers view the aging workforce as “serious business issue”, despite the fact statistics show our aging population threatens to drain the labour market.
According to Hudson, “many New Zealand companies are reluctant to make use of one of the largest and most skilled pools of labour talent; migrants and other non-traditional workers such as part-time parents returning to the workforce and older workers”.
NZIM is now supporting research by NZiRA to find out what is contributing to these attitudes; understand how employers can meet the challenges of an aging workforce; and discover what actions and adjustments are already being made but more importantly need to be made to take advantage of these motivated experienced people.
We also think it is imperative that employers seeking skilled or even unskilled younger employees should bring them together to share the knowledge and experience held by older members of the workforce.
We also want to research older workers to identify the barriers they experience as they look to continue their working life and also learn more about their attitudes to issues such as change in status, work-life balance and time off for whatever.
Equal Employment Opportunity commissioner, Judy McGregor, told the Summit that we needed to establish broad, high-level commitment to public/private partnership around increased labour market participation of older workers. “By 2051 quarter of New Zealand’s population will be over 65,” compared with just 12 percent in 1991.
What’s more, the growth rate of New Zealand’s current working-age population, 15 to 64, will decline and become negative by 2041. “Labour skills shortages will be pervasive,” she warned.
But what do employers think about older workers, including older managers? According to McGregor, attitudes in New Zealand are “remarkably consistent” with international research. Positively, they think older workers are “productive, reliable, demonstrate strong work ethic and use accumulated knowledge”.
Negatively, they believe older workers are less adaptable, more resistant to change (technology), take more time to absorb “new” knowledge and may be more costly. “In general, employers have not yet thought about how to attract mature people from retirement back into work,” said McGregor.
“Older worker issues impact on all four points of the employment cycle; recruitment, development, retention and exit,” she said.
It is obvious that some sectors will be hit hard in terms of skills shortages, knowledge loss and customer service deficits when the baby boomer generation retires. Employment frameworks must at least consider age balance issues.
I agree with Judy McGregor that leveraging demographic change to enhance labour market participation and productivity will require proactive, coordinated and innovative approach from New Zealand’s workplace leaders. And NZIM intends playing its part in explaining and enhancing the environment that makes this happen.

David Chapman is national chief executive of the New Zealand Institute of Management.

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