Business leaders are missing out on a competitive advantage by not engaging New Zealand's most experienced talent pool - the over-55s. That's the firm view of Brien Keegan, country manager of Randstad New Zealand, after a recent survey by the recruitment specialists showed that only 45 per cent of employers think retaining older workers is crucial for their company's success.

Keegan says workers aged 55-plus represent a significant and increasing demographic in our population, and bring a wealth of experience and knowledge to the workplace.

"They've worked through different economic cycles, different times, they've literally seen the evolution from no computers to everybody having a computer in their pocket."

He says a current challenge for the business community is having young leaders move quickly through their careers, and he believes those young leaders should be mentored and guided by those who are more mature.


"When I was running our Hong Kong business, I was able to reach out to a Kiwi leader who was in a senior position over there.

"He was able to help me grow and think about the decisions I made from a different viewpoint, which was hugely beneficial."

Keegan says older workers should be valued for the intellectual property and knowledge they bring to a business, and because they are continuing to work for the right reasons. "You're getting a fully committed individual who really wants to contribute and give back."

Keegan notes that in 2010 the World Bank announced the ageing workforce would likely have a greater impact on GDP globally than the global financial crisis, should countries and organisations fail to embrace it.

"It's a serious topic," he says.

Of the survey respondents, 58 per cent believe job prospects don't look as bright for the over-55s as the 18-30s, and Keegan says there's a perception that young people are digital natives and therefore more prepared for technology growth.

"But because the largest population demographic in New Zealand is the baby boomers, it should be to an organisation's competitive advantage to have that older talent, even in new technology start-up firms, because the over-55s are big consumers of technology."

Keegan says people tend to make the assumption that older people are racing towards retirement at 65 and as soon as they hit that birthday they'll be running out the door, "but in my experience of people approaching that retirement age, the last thing they want to do is finish work. While they're not as motivated by the opportunity to climb the career ladder, they're motivated by the social aspect of work, the fact they've got money to spend, and in some cases by not suddenly spending all their time with their spouse. I think it's a misperception that mature age workers are looking to exit the workforce. If anything, they're looking for opportunities to stay connected."

Keegan says it's a myth that hiring older workers means hiring people with lower energy levels.

"I think the energy level of an individual in the workplace is related completely to their engagement.

"A person could be straight out of university and if you don't have them engaged, you can guarantee their energy levels won't be up there."

He points out the ages of the current US presidential candidates - Hillary Clinton at 69 and Donald Trump at 70.

"Even closer to home, Mr Key is 55 this year and Ms Clark is 66 and she's vying for the biggest job in the United Nations. You can't run New Zealand or the UN without having a high level of energy."

Some older employees do need a change of pace, however, and Keegan says it's then important to engage them through flexibility, especially "flex-security" where people have both flexibility and security of work, whether it be part time, contract work or job sharing.

He recently met with an FMCG organisation that was facing the challenge, because of the ageing demographic, of finding enough young people to lift boxes on to the backs of trucks.

With fewer young people to take on these roles, Keegan believes the answer lies in utilising technology. "What we're seeing in general in the manufacturing environment is a move towards getting people away from doing manual work and into operating technology."

Keegan says regardless of age, being fit and able-bodied is key.

"I know people who have back issues in their 20s, but I also know lots of people 55-plus who are running marathons.

"So, less important is the age of the person, if they've got the physical fitness and wellbeing for the job."

It's what's in your head that says how old you are

At 74, Kevin Martin (above) still heads off daily to his job at Waiheke Real Estate, where he's sold property for the past 31 years.

He has no plans to retire.

"I don't read books or play cards - so as well as work, this is my social activity," he says.
He enjoys the contact with staff and clients and says that though he doesn't have the same energy he once had, "it's a better energy. I'm more comfortable with myself".

Although his job isn't manual, it is physical, and he says it can be stressful dealing with people's emotions and their money.

More often these days, he heads home mid-afternoon if he's got through his appointments.

"Also, it's getting a little bit technical for me but we have people who can help with that and we get through."

Martin says his wife has a smile on her face when she waves him goodbye in the morning. "She's happy for me to go," he laughs.

He says being older means, "getting changed in the dark and only using a mirror for driving", but Martin thinks that overall, "your 50s and 60s are the best years of your life because you're stable and you've got your house, and your kids have taken off.

"I'm just happy to be here and go to work. It's what's in your head that says how old you are."