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Liam Butler interviews Tim Bently

Liam Butler interviews Tim Bently

To what extent are NZ organisations prepared to positively and productively engage in an aging workforce?

There is little doubt that New Zealand's workforce, along with its population, is ageing. Internationally, the aging of society and the workforce is a dominant theme in commentaries on the future of work, as the retirement of the baby boomer generation nears. A decreased labour supply, and with it a sudden loss in skills and experience, is expected over coming years across many countries, while an aging population will put increasing pressure on health and welfare systems. New Zealand's situation mirrors the situation across the industrialised world, although demographic statistics suggests that New Zealand faces particular challenges (and opportunities) in the employment area. Indeed, participation rates of mature-age workers within the national and international workforce are rising. Among OECD countries, New Zealand recorded the second highest employment rate of people aged 55-64 years in 2012 and 2013, and third highest of people aged 65-69 years in 2012 (OECD, 2014). Some 22% of workers in New Zealand are aged 55 years or over according to Statistics NZ, and government figures predict that this proportion will rise to 25% by 2020, with many likely to remain working beyond 65. Indeed, the proportion of the labour force aged 65 or over (currently 5%) is expected to increase to 13% by 2036 (Statistics NZ, 2012).

A range of reasons are likely to be causing New Zealanders to have a longer working life. Some of these will depend on individual circumstances, such as financial needs, job satisfaction and life satisfaction (e.g. mental stimulation, physical activity, making a difference, making a useful contribution, being valued). Other factors, operating at a societal level, include the increasing availability of quality part-time work and flexible work arrangements, improved health at older ages, delayed childbearing leading to older parenting ages, a national superannuation scheme that commences at 65 years of age and allows individuals to remain in employment, and a lack of alternative superannuation options. Factors operating within the organisational or work context include HR practices, the workplace climate, age discriminatory behaviour, perceived organisational support, and support from co-workers and managers.

In order to gain a better understanding of the current situation in New Zealand and of the issues that organisations need to address when engaging an aging workforce, AUT's New Zealand Work Research Institute and their research partners from the EEO Trust, Massey University and the University of Waikato conducted a survey of almost 300 EEO Trust organisational members. The findings suggested strongly that organisations are seeking to engage their ageing workforce both positively and productively. The average proportion of mature-age workers (55 years and over) in an organisation's workforce was 25% - a little higher than the national proportion of 22% according to Statistics NZ. Respondents had relatively positive perceptions about attitudes and behaviours in their organisations toward mature-age workers. Indeed, the majority of respondents (around 70%) felt that in their organisations mature-age workers were appreciated and managed in an age-neutral way, while few felt that in their organisations there were pervasive negative stereotypes about mature-age workers or biases that affected decisions by managers. Almost one-half had concerns about the medium-term (5 years) impact of an ageing workforce on their industry sector or their organisation, or could see their organisation facing a shortage of highly experienced/skilled workers. Compared to the general workforce in the organisation, mature-age workers were perceived to be more likely to remain with the organisation and, to a lesser extent, to be more committed to the organisation and more engaged with their work. The greatest perceived benefit of employing mature-age workers was retention of their job-related skills, expertise, knowledge and experience. Related to this was the role that mature-age workers play in knowledge transfer to other workers and mentoring. Just under half of respondents' organisations currently had or planned to put in place an age strategy or a diversity policy promoting mature-age workers. The majority of respondents' organisations currently had or planned to implement flexible work arrangements for mature-age workers, or using them in a training or mentoring capacity. Other practices targeted at older workers were less prevalent, or even uncommon, in respondents' organisations.

As a follow-on from this study, we are now seeking to examine the perceptions and work experiences of mature-age workers in the New Zealand workforce, particularly in relation to the ways that their organisations engage with them. This study will draw on individual workers from a sample of the nearly 300 organisations that participated in the original study. Findings will be reported on the NZWRI and EEO Trist websites later this year.


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