Imagine a future where a quarter of the workforce is aged 55-plus, and one in 10 workers is over 65 - old enough to get NZ Superannuation.

It's less than 20 years away, according to current projections. By 2036, the number of over-55s in the workforce is expected to rise to more than 820,000 -- a 70 per cent jump since 2011.

The figures are the long-predicted result of the baby boomer generation moving through the workforce.

Yet some experts say businesses and employers are doing little to cope with the challenges of an ageing workforce, to ensure there isn't a costly loss of skills and experience when they do retire.

Advertisement

A survey of 500 businesses last year by the Commission for Financial Capability (CFFC) found 83 per cent did not have any specific policies relating to older workers.

David Boyle, the commission's group manager, investor education, believes most businesses are doing very little or nothing concrete to support older workers.

"They are under-estimating the challenges that lie ahead; most haven't worked out what their workforce looks like, with growing numbers of older workers, and the impact it will have on their company in the future." And Boyle says there are big risks to businesses if they continue to do that.

"If they don't manage their older workforce, then they could lose an awful lot of knowledge and expertise when those people retire.

"They need to think about how to pass that on to the next generation."

Geoff Pearman, a specialist business consultant who helps employers come to terms with their ageing workforce, says it's difficult to say how well-prepared businesses are.

"It is very hard to talk about New Zealand business -- it is not a homogenous group.

"Often, large companies have policies in place but smaller businesses don't."

So far, says Pearman, it is mainly the early adopters which are addressing the issues.

"I think what I am seeing -- I went into this work four to five years ago -- I'm still seeing the early adopters. I'm still seeing people say, 'oh my God, something is happening here'."

He says the issue can be seen as a diversity concern, "but that doesn't really engage the top level executive." When it comes to diversity, he says the priorities are going to be gender and ethnicity ahead of older workers.

Instead, he prefers to focus on the risks to business from an ageing workforce.

For example, what happens if an employer has a significant number of staff in the 60-65 age group, all in highly technical roles?

If they all retire at the same time, the business could lose a lot of knowledge and experience all at once.

Pearman says it's an issue of knowledge continuity. "What are the skill shortages in that area?" And he says health and safety could be an issue, particularly for those in physical jobs.

"When you start to understand the business risks, you can start to address them.

"What I get a bit concerned about is a cookie cutter approach," he says. "I think some are doing it well ... some are not even aware of it and some are a bit amused or confused."

Pearman says there is much more engagement and awareness of the issue among Australian businesses, driven by the Government and a need to lift the proportion of people participating in the labour force.

Research in Australia by Deloitte found a 3 per cent increase in the number of workers aged over 65 could add A$33 billion to the economy.

Not only would it boost the buying power of the over-65s, but it would also lift the tax take for the Government and cut the healthcare burden.

But New Zealand already has a very high participation rate among older workers; among the over-65s, this country has the highest work participation rate of any OECD country.

Tim Bentley, a professor of work and organisation at Massey University's business school, says it's not just a loss of experience that businesses should be worried about, but a potential looming skills shortage.

Bentley says because fewer young people are coming into the workforce, there is going to be a great fight for talent.

"There will be a lot fewer younger people. And when you get them, they will be a lot more likely to leave."

To increase the supply of workers, Bentley says businesses can make it easier for women, and can use migrants to fill jobs, or they can rely more on the grey workforce.

"And we are not doing any of those very well."

Bentley says research indicates that what older workers want most is respect and recognition. But more often, they feel discriminated against.

The second most desired factor is flexibility.

"As people get older, they have different responsibilities," he says.

"It may be they can keep going in the same job but only for 30 hours a week. And they may want to work more remotely."

He says even more physical jobs can be adapted by breaking them up and people working shorter shifts.

Bentley says the over-55s are feeling younger than they once did. "We are not like our parents and grandparents ... people want to work longer."

It's also important for employers to include older workers in training and promotion. After all, even in their 60s, they might be in the workforce for another 10 years.

Bentley says next year is when New Zealand will start noticing the worker shortage, and by 2020-22 a quarter of the workforce will be in the older population.

An online sevice launched this week, www.wiseones.co.nz, aims to connect 55-plus workers with job opportunities. Founder Kate Ross says people in that age bracket are increasingly ready to take on flexible hours, and realistic about pay rates.

One employer which is already facing the challenges that come with an older workforce is Ports of Auckland.

Of the port's 464 staff, 26 per cent are aged 56 and over.

It has 67 staff between 56 and 60, 37 between 60 and 64 and 22 over the age of 65.

Diane Edwards, general manager of people, systems and technology at the port, says it offers a number of solutions to help older workers.

Office staff can go part-time or start earlier or later, while those with more physical jobs can move to lighter duties.

Edwards says it can be a tough conversation to have.

"Some people take it in different ways. Some people will ask to transition to lighter duties. Yes, we have had to have the conversation with some people."

But she says it is not just age which requires those tough conversations.

"We may have to talk about weight. It is not just isolated to age -- although that is a significant factor.

"What we tend to do is find, when people are in good health they are more likely to stay. It is not often people turn 65 and say I am going to stop work now."

For the port's more technical staff, such as marine pilots, they can be paired with a younger worker, allowing them to cut hours while also passing on knowledge.

"We try to be as flexible as we can. We have a number of options like job-share."

Edwards says she has noticed a trend towards more people in their 50s and 60s needing time off to care for elderly parents.

"We have a number of people that have parents getting into their 80s with ill-health and dementia. We are flexible to support them in that."

But she says the desire for flexibility is not just an age thing. The hardest conversation she has had was with someone suspected of having dementia.

"And I guess that is one of the challenges that may increase.

"But certainly it is not a typical situation. You don't turn 65 and start getting forgetful." Edwards says a lot of what businesses can do is about changing their mind-set.

"Many people say, what are the challenges? For me, it's what are the opportunities.

"They have got a lot of experience. We have challenges with all of the workforce -- people starting a family.

"Yes there are challenges but it's not unique to that age group."

Eileen Brown, senior policy analyst at the Council of Trade Unions, believes a national approach is needed to get employers focused on the issues.

"Employers will look at their own business first above altruistic goals. That's why we have got to have a national policy, otherwise employers will not put anything in place."

She says there also needs to be more training made available and the ability to re-train at a much younger age than 65, so those who are no longer physically capable of keeping going in their field have other choices.

And she says people need to be made aware of those training options.

"There needs to be active labour market policies."

But Business New Zealand chief executive Kirk Hope believes the situation has been over-played.

"Some business would say they don't need to do anything radically different. They have already got a workforce with older people in it."

He was surprised at the CFFC research which showed very few employers had policies to cope with an older workforce.

"I have issues with how it was conducted."

Hope says if you ask a business whether they have policies and procedures for older workers, the answer might be no.

But he believes that if you ask how many workers they have over 55 and how they are coping with that, they will have an answer.

He also questions whether older workers need any special treatment.

"Are you required to do anything different?

"Sure, if it's a job that requires a lot of physical labour it might not be desirable for someone over the age of 70."

He says having a diverse workforce which is representative of the population is something many employers want.

"It will be a priority for large business because they want to represent what customers look like and older workers are in demand because of the growth in New Zealand.

"Currently we have got skill shortages in a number of areas."

"There is a shift happening in the work environment. It is becoming more education and skill intensive. It's about making sure they can get access to training. That is an important cultural feature."

He believes business will start to come to terms with the change in the next five to 10 years.

"There will be more requirements to upskill. I think they will get better at it. Some are really good at it."

But Kirk says New Zealand also has a very large group of small and medium sized enterprises who will look to outsource their training.

"Am I saying businesses are really geared up? No, but it's not as bleak a picture as the CFFC study made it out to be."

Too soon to quit

Ports of Auckland payroll team leader Robyn Roff says she didn't want to retire when she turned 65. Photo/Nick Reed.
Ports of Auckland payroll team leader Robyn Roff says she didn't want to retire when she turned 65. Photo/Nick Reed.

When 69-year-old payroll boss Robyn Roff turned 65, she thought about stopping work.

"I think everybody does because it is the retirement age," she says. "But when I got there I wasn't ready to do it."

Roff is part of a growing group of over-65s still in the workforce.

Census figures from 2013 show that more than half of males aged 65 to 69 are still working - up from 30 per cent in 2001.

Fewer women in that age group still work, but the proportion has increased from 15 per cent in 2001 to 35 per cent.

Roff works full-time at Ports of Auckland and was promoted into her current role after turning 65.

She says her job, which includes managing two other staff, couldn't be done part time.

"This job really requires a full-time person."

Roff's father was an accountant and did contracting work into his early 90s. He is about to turn 94.

She says that example may have influenced her, but she does enjoy working.

"I always liked school and I like work. Some people may have to keep working because of their commitments. I don't, I could have retired."

She doesn't yet know when she will stop working, but will give up the job if "there is something else I really want to do".

Roff rebuffs any criticism that older workers can't keep up with technology, saying she has a cellphone - but isn't on it all the time like some younger people.

"They are chained to it - it's like an addiction," she says.

For 67-year-old Graeme Doherty, continuing to work came on advice from his doctor after he twice survived cancer.

Doherty has a physical job working as a crane fitter and on maintenance in the port's engineering department.

For most of his 28 years there he has worked a six day on, two days off roster covering three different shifts, including a graveyard shift from 11pm to 7am.

But after his health challenges, his work has allowed him to move to just a day shift of 7am to 3pm.

His employer supported him through bowel cancer in 2011, when he had to take three months off, and in 2014 when he had to have a lump removed from his lungs, followed by six months of chemotherapy.

"When I came out of the last op, the surgeon said what are you going to do now?"

Doherty didn't know, but the surgeon told him keeping up his job would be the best thing he could do because it would give him discipline, comradeship and stimulation.

He doesn't do any heavy lifting these days, however.

Doherty doesn't plan to retire soon, but is making plans for the future: he and his wife, who is 65 and still works full-time for Steel and Tube, recently bought a beach section where he wants to build a new house when he eventually does stop working.

"I still feel up to it. But I am working towards my retirement."

The couple have four children and Doherty lent money to his sons to buy their first houses; he says part of the reason for continuing to work is to replenish the couple's savings.

He believes people should keep working as long as they can.

"Just because you turn 65 doesn't mean you can't be productive."

Having to step back a bit at work was hard to take at first, says Doherty, but he has come to terms with it now. "I have a purpose, I have a goal."

Doherty says he is lucky his employer has been so good to him. "I have been really lucky. There have been times when I haven't produced a lot and they have carried me."

But continuing to work has meant he can pass down his skills and knowledge to others.