'Valuing The Older Worker' Conferences

  • David Carter
Senior Citizens

10 March 1999, Auckland , 12 March 1999, Wellington
'Valuing the Older Worker in the International Year of Older Persons 1999'

Good morning David Peirse, organiser of this conference, fellow speakers and ladies and gentlemen.

Thank you for inviting me here today to officially open this conference dedicated to 'Valuing the Older Worker'.

Last month saw the introduction of a significant law change for New Zealanders, particularly for older New Zealanders.

We banned age-discrimination from the work-place.

This was achieved through an amendment to the Human Rights Act, which has made it unlawful for employers to make someone retire from their job because of their age.

We have in effect banned compulsory retirement based on age.

The implications of this law change are profound, but are yet to be fully realised by most people, and in particular employers and employees.

Despite publicity from the Human Rights Commission and Government, many employers continue to be ignorant of this law change.

That's why today's conference is significant.

We need to take every opportunity we can over the next few months to educate employers about the law change.

Older workers are now a reality.

They are legally entitled to remain in the workforce well past the age of 65 years, and they are becoming an increasingly important part of our labour force.

I'd like to start by addressing the situation of our ageing population.

Like many other developed countries, New Zealand's population has been "ageing" over recent decades as a result of our declining birth rate and rapid improvements in life expectancy.

Older people now make up a growing proportion of our population.

In March last year, the over-65s made up 12 percent of the population, up from 11 percent in 1991.

By the year 2011, when the baby boom generation of which I'm a part of, enters the over-65s, we will see this group grow from 13 percent of the population to 17 percent by 2021, and then grow to a staggering 21 percent by 2031.

At the same time, over the next two decades, the age structure of the working age population will also alter substantially.

The working age population, that is those aged from 16 to 64 years, currently makes up 65 percent of the total population.

This figure is forecast to increase slightly to 67 percent by 2010, but is projected to fall significantly to around 59 percent by 2031.

What this means is that over the longer term, proportionally fewer people of working age will be available to generate the resources needed to support the increasing numbers of retired people.

We have all heard over the last couple of years the debate concerning the future of superannuation in this country, but the demands of our growing retirees will also impact on our health budget.

As Minister for Senior Citizens I can tell you the figures are quite frightening and they are quite real.

It is not scaremongering on Government's part to raise these issues, and we all need to be aware of the tough decisions we will have to make in the future concerning the level of superannuation we can afford to fund.

In the long run the economic growth of any country is dependent upon the number of people employed and their rate of productivity.

It is fairly evident that the retention of productive older workers will have enormous economic benefits, and will also contribute socially.

Many people over the age of 65 years consider that they have a lot of work left in them.

I'd like to think in twenty years I'll be one of them.

As well as the career satisfaction, older people, like their younger colleagues, enjoy the professional and social benefits of working in today's world.

This law change recognises that it is only fair that older people are allowed to continue to work if they wish to do so, and have the capacity to do so.

A mix of ages in the workforce is also beneficial.

It means that there is a range of skills and experience, and older employees are able to pass on their knowledge to younger employees.

Overseas experience has also shown us that many workers continue to follow normal retirement patterns - even when they have the choice of staying on in the workforce for longer.

What tends to happen is that people gradually taper off their workforce involvement, and this has positive spin-offs.

"Incremental" retirement overseas research suggests, avoids the sudden loss of knowledge and skill which occurs when an older, long term employee suddenly leaves the workplace.

New Zealand will benefit from more of these scenarios.

Another trend we have seen over recent years is the rise in part time employment for older workers.

Many older people are now not retiring completely, but are keeping their hand in with a few hours a week at their old workplace.

This scenario is beneficial from a retirement planning perspective, as the latter working years of an older person's life are often good retirement savings years.

This is usually the time of life when the family has left home, the mortgage is paid off, and a good portion of the older person's earnings can go towards setting themselves up for retirement.

It's a time of life many of us look forward to, and it has to be a good thing if we can allow people to put together a better retirement package before they turn to the State for help.

But before older people enter or stay on in the workforce, there are a few myths surrounding the employment of older workers that have to be shattered.

Let's take a look at some of these more common myths.

One complaint I've heard a lot of lately is that "older people are more expensive to employ".

As pay rates are in fact determined by the size and difficulty of a job, this is not technically correct.

Rather than the number of years someone has been doing a job, performance and job requirements are usually the indicators of expense.

It was true at one stage older workers were more expensive, but this does not automatically apply now, particularly with the Employment Contracts Act.

Another common myth that needs to be shattered is that older people cannot cope with technology.

Older people are certainly capable of learning new technology, and one of the groups I have had the pleasure of visiting in Wellington, Senior Net, would certainly dispel that myth.

Teaching computer skills to other older people, these 60 and 70 year-olds definitely put my computer knowledge to shame.

It may be true that some older people have not encountered some of today's technology, but with suitably targeted training, most are able to come up to speed without problems.

It is simply not fair to generalise about the computer skills of our older generation. Many are as able as their younger colleagues to adapt to the latest technology.

Another assumption is the line that as workers age, their abilities and performance decline.

Instead a State Services Commission report from this year suggests that the performance of professionals increases with age.

People who are poor performers at 60, tend to have been poor performers at 40.

It's not strictly correct to blame poor performance on age.

Other employers have told me of their concerns that older workers have memory problems and are less mentally alert.

But the same State Services Commission report from this year found that older people generally had an improved ability for complex calculations.

No noticeable correlation between age and memory difficulties was found either.

This is a year in which we should be tackling these myths.

The United Nation's International Year of Older Persons kicked off on October 1 last year and will take on an increasing profile this year as communities start to celebrate their older generations.

As Minister for Senior Citizens I'm looking forward to taking part in some of the celebrations that are planned.

These include intergenerational programmes which will bring school children together with older people in May in a landmark initiative designed to foster acceptance and understanding between the generations.

Then in October, a series of community festivities, including radio programmes, galas, history displays and art exhibitions will highlight the pivotal role our older generation plays in society.

I can tell you there has never been a better time for us to recognise our and value our older people.

More significantly, there has never been a better time for us to promote the concept of positive ageing.

Last month's law change went a substantial way towards making positive ageing a reality - by allowing older people to play a more active role in the workforce.

Until now older workers have commonly found themselves in positions where their skills are undervalued, and they have been exploited because of their age.

Many have accepted positions beneath their training and education because of the perceptions of those around them.

Perceptions that they couldn't hack the pace, that they weren't up with the latest technology and skills, and that they had simply entered cruise mode, waiting for their retirement package to kick in.

It's true that many older workers are often capable of more complex tasks than they are given responsibility for.

This perception needs to be challenged, and this is the year to do it.

Capability, experience and upskilling of older workers are key goals for New Zealand if we are to remain internationally competitive.

I'm looking forward to seeing older people play a more significant role in our workplaces this year, and the Human Rights Act amendment is the medium which will bring about this culture change.

The amendment is now in force, so we all have to get on with the job of recognising and supporting the older worker.

It is not a choice now, it is our duty.

The challenge facing New Zealand and the taxpayer now is the future of superannuation.

As Minister for Senior Citizens I'm very aware of the need for future debate on this issue.

While the referendum on compulsory superannuation met a resounding no from the public 18 months ago, tough decisions still need to be made on the level of superannuation we can afford, in the not so distant future.

The future of our retirement income is probably the most pressing issue we have.

And it's something that should concern us all.

So on a closing note, I'd encourage you to remain interested in this topic and keep a close eye on the efforts of the Superannuation 2000 Taskforce.

After all their findings affect all of us.

Thank you for your interest. I'd now like to officially declare this conference to be open.