As Covid-19 causes rising unemployment, older workers made redundant face a double whammy - ageism in the job market and no way to save for retirement. Jane Phare talks to experts about what older workers should do to future-proof themselves.
Older workers' advocate Ian Fraser doesn't mind doing the odd bit of pleading. For goodness sake, he'll tell any employer who'll listen, older workers bring knowledge, experience, life skills and a good work ethic to any workplace.
And, he'll add, it's a myth that they get sick more often and need time off, or that they can't handle new technology. What absolute nonsense, he says.
Fraser, 68, knows what it's like to suffer from the unseen discrimination of ageism. Finding himself unemployed a few days short of his 60th birthday, he sent out his impressive CV, based on years working in food, hospitality and events businesses, applying for 75 positions. He got two interviews.
He's in no doubt that age, grey hair, or no hair, clouds the views of prospective employers. Last year he launched Seniors@work, an employment website and Facebook page to link businesses to workers in the 55-plus age group.
Fraser doesn't pretend it's been a runaway success. He was gradually building up the job listings and then along came Covid-19. The listings dried to a trickle as businesses laid off staff or replaced positions from within. Added to that, older people were viewed as vulnerable to the coronavirus and were told to stay home.
"Covid knocked the stuffing out of my business just like a lot of small businesses."
But he's not discouraged. Fraser plans to build up the website's listings again and keep going, if only to be an advocate for older workers while knocking on employers' doors to encourage them to look favourably on grey hair.
"I call them the forgotten jobseekers. We think of the young but forget about the mature workers."
Jane Wrightson, Retirement Commissioner and head of the Commission For Financial Capability (CFFC), says the difficulties facing older workers already existed before Covid-19 forced employers to look out at the shop floor and decide who should go.
"I think what Covid has done is just add another headwind."
For many, the life plan was to see the kids off, pay down the mortgage and use the last working years to save for a retirement - maybe not a Rhine cruise every year but at least a comfortable standard of living.
"That plan just got a big hit," Wrightson says. "The next five or 10 years are going to be tricky, there's no question about that."
Since Covid-19, her office has had an influx of calls from people wanting the age for superannuation to be lowered.
"There are people contacting us in their late 50s saying 'you need to be lobbying for the pension age to be dropped to 60 for those of us who have been made redundant by Covid'."
They are a new Covid generation – too young to retire and, apparently, too old to work. The CFFC acknowledges that ageism is one of the last "isms" to be tackled. A CFFC survey of 500 companies showed 65 per cent agreed older workers can face barriers to being hired because of age, even though they are capable of doing the work.
The number of older Kiwis in the workforce has gradually grown in the past two decades, with people increasingly working past retirement age, either because they have to or because they want to.
Back in 1986, 49 per cent of people in the 55 to 64-year-old age group were employed. By 2017, that figure had risen to 82 per cent. Among people aged 60 to 64, more than 70 per cent were employed.
In the 65+ age group, 25 per cent were still working, with 12 per cent still paying a mortgage and another 12 per cent still paying rent.
That percentage of 65+ workers is one of the highest rates in the world. By comparison, the UK has 10 per cent still working in that age group and Australia has 12 per cent.
Fraser is in no doubt that ageism exists. He hears stories from people who approach him. He's introduced a new listing option on his site – a 60-day "welcome" that doesn't advertise specific jobs but rather sends a message to mature-aged job seekers that they are welcome to look at the company's careers board.
Carters building suppliers has signed up to the 60-day option, encouraging older workers to apply for jobs.
Older workers welcome
Bunnings New Zealand, too, welcomes older workers, and one in five employees is aged 56 and over. Director Jacqui Coombes says mature workers are experienced, and have product and DIY knowledge that benefits customers. In addition, they become mentors for younger team members.
"Informal mentoring is fantastic training and development and it's great to see friendships blossom across age demographics," she says.
Auckland's Cordis hotel also welcomes older workers and has long-serving staff who are now in their 70s. The hotel's director of human resources, Kimberly Ford, says older workers connect easily with guests.
"They definitely bring some great life experience to the table plus attributes like patience, good work ethic, customer service skills and good old common sense."
Older staff fill a variety of roles including welcoming doormen, shuttle drivers, housekeeping, and on the food and beverage team.
Although Covid-19 has hit the hotel industry hard, Ford says once business picks up the hotel will be actively looking for new staff.
"They are welcome to contact the team now so we are ready to spring into action as soon as we have opportunities."
But in spite of some companies welcoming older workers, there's little doubt that people in their 50s and 60s have a tough time of it when faced with redundancy.
Research shows that older workers who lose their jobs have around 30 per cent lower employment in their first year after redundancy compared with other workers their age, and around 11 per cent lower employment after five years.
And if they are re-employed, they earn considerably less than comparable workers - 45 per cent lower in the first year, and 25 per cent lower after five years.
The research paper, published in 2017 by independent research unit Motu Economic and Public Policy Trust, was based on a 10-year period tracking 1200 people who had lost their jobs. Their outcomes were compared to workers of similar ages who remained employed.
Dean Hyslop, senior fellow at the trust, says the lower income when older workers were re-employed reflected their loss of the pay premium that comes with industry-specific skills. Older workers are more likely to have worked for the same company or in the same industry for many years.
"If they lose their job with the firm then they have lost all that knowledge associated with the pay premium," he says.
"They've probably been on a pretty decent income and they've had a fairly long career in the industry."
Older workers are also likely to be in declining industries. When they're made redundant, they look for a similar position - "but those jobs don't exist".
Economist Shamubeel Eaqub worries that older Kiwis who lose their jobs well before retirement age will become discouraged and leave the labour market. Ageism and other factors will make it difficult for them to re-enter the workforce.
"We saw this in the 80s/early 90s recession as well. It kind of consigns a whole group of people to a miserable retirement, which is really unfortunate."
Many New Zealanders relied on the last five years of work to save. "That's usually the time when your costs are coming down because you don't have a mortgage and all of your income is going into the pension pot."
"All of a sudden retirement got very tough for a lot of people who lost their jobs."
Wrightson says it is important for mature workers to keep broadening their skill base while employed.
"The ones who look at their employment as being an opportunity to learn as well generally have the best outcomes. There is always something to learn. You learn from younger people of course and if you're the right kind of personality, younger people will learn from you."
Mature workers faced with redundancy should not lose heart, Wrightson says, but warns that they will need strategies to get noticed in the job market.
"Just sending your CV out randomly and applying through the websites is really not enough to get you a job. It's never been that."
Instead, she advises using the personal approach and putting in some effort.
"You leverage connections, leverage people you know, identify industries you are either skilled in or want to work in and start tailoring and training yourself.
"It's not insurmountable but it takes persistence and diligence."