Key Points:

In a world where 65 is the new 55, it's hard to understand why seniors are seen, in so many quarters, as a burden on society. These are the people who today inject around $14 billion a year into the economy and undertake unpaid and voluntary work worth $8.5 billion annually. These are the people whose numbers are expected to double from the current figure of 650,000 to 1.2 million by 2035. These are the people who are projected to spend about $65 billion a year in 2051, as well as forking out $17 billion in tax. But despite their significant contribution to New Zealand's economic wellbeing, especially in terms of their experience, expertise, enthusiasm and energy, they are being put out to pasture by employers seemingly fixated on hiring much younger people. It's not just confined to those aged 65 and over. Fifty-year-olds are also in the firing line, as many are finding out. The recently released Workforce Ageing Survey revealed that about 40 per cent of older workers have experienced some form of age-related discrimination in the past five years. It also found 29 per cent of employers and 33 per cent of employees believed age discrimination was a problem in their industry. However, anecdotal evidence suggests it's a much bigger issue, given the huge response to the story about Tauranga couple Liz and Ross Grant which appeared in the Bay of Plenty Times recently.

I have applied for in excess of 60 various roles, gaining three interviews and ending up with a similar response of being over-qualified. It really was either I'm too old at 61 or the interviewer was intimidated by my experience making them feel insecure in their role.
Since moving to the Bay from Auckland a year ago the couple, who are in their early 60s, have unsuccessfully applied for about 150 jobs between them. They say prospective employers lose interest in hiring them when they find out how old they are. Their story triggered an avalanche of correspondence from Bay of Plenty folk who have had similar experiences. This is just a small selection received by the Bay of Plenty Times: "I, like the couple in this story, was happy to take on any work. Three years living on my savings and over 300 applications and lots of interviews later I finally landed a part-time job on half the salary I was on before redundancy." "I have a similar experience. In the past 12 months I have sent out at least 200 applications and have had five interviews during that time, unfortunately am still looking." "I'm in the same position as the couple in your article: 62 years old, two degrees, over 30 years as a lawyer, experience in start-up companies, experience as a director of companies, notary public and more, yet not even an interview in over a year of applying." "I have applied for in excess of 60 various roles, gaining three interviews and ending up with a similar response of being over-qualified. It really was either I'm too old at 61 or the interviewer was intimidated by my experience making them feel insecure in their role." "My dad is 61 and was made redundant two years ago from a financial advisory position. Before that he was a bank manager. He has applied for hundreds of positions all over the North Island. He is now stacking shelves in a dairy!" "I am 61, healthy, fit and keen to work but have realised that there is a discriminatory attitude towards over 60s who are seeking work. Ageism is rampant in Tauranga whether people want to believe it or not!" None of this surprises career coach Craig McAlpine who told the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend that age discrimination is a significant problem in New Zealand. "Older people today are fitter and they fully expect to work into their 60s if not their 70s, and I believe organisations fail to tap into the significant experience these individuals have. "Age is completely irrelevant and I just wish more employers would think about that." McAlpine, who runs a company called MyCareerBrand.net, believes many employers are reluctant to hire seniors in case they don't fit in with other staff. "They want to know how will they get on with their employees, many of whom will be much younger, and fit in with the culture of the organisation. "If you're an older person who has got significantly more work experience and appear to be set in your ways then that could create difficulties in the way you engage and interact with others."
Rather, what we regularly hear is that our members are struggling to find suitable applicants with the right skills for the positions they are seeking to fulfill.
Val Hayes
To assist seniors get back into the workforce McAlpine has drawn up some strategies to "break the age barrier". ¦Lose the sense of entitlement - just because you have more years of experience does not win you the right to an interview let alone entitle you to the role. Focus on how your experience is relevant to the job at hand. ¦Your online profile counts - are you on LinkedIn and, if so, is your profile complete? Did you know that about 93 per cent of recruiters look at LinkedIn during the screening process? ¦Position yourself to win - if you apply for a job and believe your age may count against you then emphasise the relevance and benefits of your experience and how you will get things done smarter. ¦Timelines and dates - only go back 10 to 15 years with your CV and try to remove anything that could lead to age discrimination, which can even be the date of your degree. If you graduated, for example, in 1972 or 1983 that immediately identifies you as being in your 50s, so remove the date. ¦Communicate a positive attitude from the start - get rid of the chip on your shoulder and demonstrate how your positive attitude will bring value to the job. Not everyone accepts that age discrimination is an issue. Val Hayes, the external relations manager of the Employers and Manufacturers Association, told the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend that "interestingly this is not something our members have brought to our attention as an issue". "Rather, what we regularly hear is that our members are struggling to find suitable applicants with the right skills for the positions they are seeking to fulfill. "This has been highlighted in our most recent employers' survey, where 68 per cent of respondents said they find it difficult to attract suitably skilled candidates, and 63 per cent expect a skills shortage in the next six months."
I was born in Taiwan where 60, and not 21, is the coming of age.
Mei Chen
Such comments are unlikely to impress scores of older people in the Bay of Plenty who are looking for work, many of them highly qualified and experienced. Their plight has been recognised by the Tauranga Chamber of Commerce, Age Concern and Priority One, who are hosting a one-day forum looking at the changing face of the workforce. The group says retaining and employing older workers is becoming "an increasingly smart solution for businesses in the attraction of skills and talent". The forum, which will be held on September 21 at the Mount Cosmopolitan Club, will provide tools to support employers and employees to undertake the transition that will be required as a result of the ageing demographic. The need for such a forum would probably perplex most Chinese New Zealanders, given their veneration of older people. One of New Zealand's leading public and employment law specialists, Mai Chen, who hails from Taiwan, told the Bay of Plenty Times that she has "never understood age discrimination". "I was born in Taiwan where 60, and not 21, is the coming of age. "When Geoffrey Palmer retired from the firm (Chen Palmer) at the age of 60 in 2002 I asked him why he was leaving when he was just coming into his prime and hitting his stride." Chen says New Zealand employers face a number of issues as a result of people living longer and remaining in the workforce. "It becomes more difficult, for example, to progress younger people through an organisation when senior employees stay in their roles for longer. "There is a risk that talented juniors will get frustrated and simply move on in search of better opportunities." She says the natural ageing process can also mean that people slow down and become less adaptable. "In a fast-paced world this can lead to performance issues and these workers struggling to keep up. "Technological change and the need to continually update systems and processes in the workplace can present a real challenge for some older workers, which can bring performance issues to a head. "It will be necessary for employers to provide the same training opportunities and performance requirements to all employees regardless of age."
Technological change and the need to continually update systems and processes in the workplace can present a real challenge for some older workers, which can bring performance issues to a head
Mei Chen
Chen says underperforming staff may face performance management or even dismissal, a process which is difficult for employers to work through, especially when an employee has put their heart and soul into the role and wants to leave with dignity. She says the only way to remove such employees is either through a performance management process or, in the case of ill health, through medical incapacity. Asking an employee to leave or dismissing them due to their age is unlawful discrimination under both the Human Rights Act and the Employment Relations Act. All of which raises an important question: Just how effective is the Human Rights Act in combating discrimination? Section 22 forbids employers from discriminating against suitably qualified job applicants on a number of grounds, including age. Its provisions apply to all aspects of employment - recruitment, selection, remuneration, training, promotion, transfers, retirement and termination, and outlaws compulsory retirement. Dr Judith Davey, voluntary policy advisor for Age Concern New Zealand, says the legislation did not have an immediate effect on age discrimination. Research found 42 per cent of employers said it had no influence and the same percentage some or a little. Davey says later reviews of the law found widespread non-compliance. "Critics of anti-age discrimination legislation believe that it does not change employers' behaviour, but simply leads to more subtle ways of discriminating. "It may just send ageism underground." Her views are, perhaps, borne out by the coded language often used by recruiters when interviewing older applicants. Phrases such as "I think you're over-qualified'' are code for "I think you have been in the workforce too long'', while statements saying "this position requires high energy levels'' are code for "I think you're too old to handle the pressure". Another factor, and one deserving of greater scrutiny, is the calibre of the recruiters themselves. The recruitment industry in New Zealand is unregulated and there are concerns in some quarters about the training, experience and high turnover of recruiters. One insider told the Bay of Plenty Times there are some "horror stories" in the industry that would not be tolerated elsewhere.
Critics of anti-age discrimination legislation believe that it does not change employers' behaviour, but simply leads to more subtle ways of discriminating.
Dr Judith Davey
For her part, Dr Davey believes there are a number of measures which could be used to combat age discrimination, such as tightening up and clarifying anti-discrimination legislation or using other employment law to deal with the problem. And, if that's not the total answer, there could be more information and education about the value of older workers and the benefits of employing them. She says people she's interviewed have called for the government to take the lead, with one person advocating the appointment of an Age Discrimination Commissioner, working alongside the Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner, as there is in Australia. On the bright side, she says some companies overseas have taken an enlightened approach to employing an age-diverse workforce. One-third of the people employed by British multi-national retailer Marks & Spencer are aged over 50, with the oldest employee being recruited at 80. "The firm believes in embracing a diverse workforce reflecting their customer base. "Employees are allowed to start drawing on their company pension at age 55 while continuing to work there, often on reduced hours. "It's easy to see how such initiatives will help to increase understanding between the generations and work against age discrimination." Here in New Zealand, Fletcher Building, with the help of software company Weirdly, is also doing its bit to have a diverse workforce through "blind" recruitment of graduates. Applicants take a quiz that is designed to reveal their personality traits and assess whether they are compatible with the company's values and culture. Their names, photos, contact details and anything else that could be used to identify them are withheld from recruiters to avoid any unconscious bias on their part. Eliminating unconscious bias is viewed as one of the most important things companies can do in order to promote diversity in the workplace. Those who pass the quiz are then subjected to psychometric testing, their personal details still hidden from those assessing them.
The Workforce Ageing Survey found older workers are seen as productive and hard-working, better in a crisis and able to bring lots of experience to a role.
Maggie Barry
Candidates who get through this go on to film a short video which is doctored to hide their identity. From this, a shortlist of 40 graduates is drawn and their identities revealed for the first time, before they undergo face-to-face interviews and skills assessments. To what extent other New Zealand companies embrace blind recruiting remains to be seen but seniors, for one, will doubtless be wishing it could be applied to them. In the meantime, Senior Citizens Minister Maggie Barry says age discrimination is completely unacceptable. She told the Bay of Plenty Times she is committed to changing attitudes and highlighting the problem across the country. "The Workforce Ageing Survey found older workers are seen as productive and hard-working, better in a crisis and able to bring lots of experience to a role." Tauranga couple Liz and Ross Grant unsuccessfully applied for about 150 jobs between them over the past year but since their story was reported in The Bay of Plenty Times last month, Mrs Grant is currently processing a job application with New Zealand Health Care. "They emailed a couple of days after our story went to the paper, they made contact and I filled in the application and now I'm waiting on the process," Mrs Grant says. Her husband Ross had since been on a couple of interviews and Mrs Grant says "there's a few things in the fire".