Liz has applied for hundreds of jobs in the past six years - without a single bite, she says.

The now 51-year-old is tertiary qualified and has worked for a range of employers over her career, including the Government.

But Liz (not her real name) believes her age is now holding her back. "People say don't put your age on your CV but people are not stupid - you can tell from my CV I have had a lot of experience.

"It is the stereotype of the older worker."

Advertisement

Liz is not alone.

When the Herald ran a story about a 65-year-old Whanganui woman applying for 32 jobs in six months and being unable to secure work, it was flooded with others in similar situations.

It all comes as no surprise to Paul Jarvie, employment relations and safety manager at the Employers and Manufacturers Association (EMA).

Jarvie says research shows people who are out of work and looking for a job find it incredibly difficult to get a foot in the door if they are over 48 years of age.

"The code is: 'we will call you back'."

And if you are in employment, "old" means from about 55 years of age.

Jarvie says older workers who are employed face the expectation that they will leave the workforce at 65.

"People are hard-wired to see that as the age of retirement. But it's not any longer; 65 is now just the age at which people become eligible for New Zealand superannuation."

In past generations, 65 was the age people retired - then often passed away within a few years.

But these days, says Jarvie, people can expect to live 20 or 30 years beyond that.

"There is a notion of a clock ticking down for employers to 65.

"The issue for employers is to change that hard-wiring in the brain."

Jarvie says employers instead need to have a conversation with people about what their plans are - and if they want to keep working, how to enable that.

The EMA is the driving force behind a recently released white paper called Act Now Age Later: Unlocking the Potential of our Ageing Workforce, which urges employers to make the most of their older workforce or face dire consequences in the future.

He warns that if New Zealand ignores the fact it has an ageing workforce, it will be a "car crash" waiting to happen as businesses struggle to find enough workers to grow or even carry out day-to-day functions.

"Middle managers could find themselves doing process jobs because there is no one else to do it. It will limit expansion of businesses if they can't get the labour they need.

"It will force some to adopt technology faster because they don't have enough people to do the job. That is already happening in some sectors."

Businesses are already reporting labour shortages. Jarvie says immigrants are being used to solve the problem now, but that may not be sustainable in the future as New Zealand will have to compete with other countries for labour.

"If you look internationally, there are only three areas where population is still growing - India, South America and Africa.

"Every other country is in a negative rate ... the world is running out of people.
Places like Japan and China are in dire straits because of historical policies."

He points to Japan, which already has 85,000 people over the age of 100 and is struggling to find workers to look after them.

In New Zealand, nearly one in three workers is already over 55. By 2066, the group between 40 and 64 will overtake those aged 15 to 39.

And research shows businesses are not well prepared for the change.

A survey of 500 businesses by the Commission for Financial Capability found many employers were concerned about the impact the ageing workforce would have on their business, yet few were doing anything about it.

More than 80 per cent of respondents did not have any specific strategies or policies relating to older workers.

While most respondents had a positive attitude towards older workers, over 65 per cent agreed or partly agreed that older workers could face barriers to being hired in their industry because of age.

This view was most prevalent among respondents from the information, media and telecommunications sectors (80 per cent), agriculture, forestry and fishing (74.4 per cent) and construction (73.5 per cent).

Jarvie says employers need to start looking at what the demographics are in their business now, and think about what they will look like in five years' time.

The EMA is working on a tool kit to help employers prepare to better support older workers and encourage them to stay in the workforce.

He says conversations need to start as young as 45 years old, looking at how someone is going to keep gaining skills and training to extend their career, with education becoming a lifetime process.

The Tertiary Education Commission has focused on educating 18-to-24-year-olds but has now recognised learning needs to happen over a lifetime.

"The workplace has changed and people need to change to keep their employability," says Jarvie.

"Gone are the days where you train for one career."

Changing technology is also affecting the future of work, with "hard skills" more likely to be carried out by a machine in future, while "soft skills" such as analysis or people management are likely to be what employers want.

It is thought that as much as 60 per cent of current jobs will be done by a machine or computer in the future.

Jarvie says it has been estimated that 500,000 people are going to have to be re-trained at some stage.

Older workers may have a lot of knowledge and experience they can pass on to younger workers, but in exchange for staying on, they may want the flexibility of working less.

He says the law already allows for flexibility for workers, but only a quarter of employers are doing anything about supporting their older workforce.

"We want to empower businesses to look at middle-aged people and say 'how can we keep them?'"

Diane Edwards, general manager of people, systems and technology at Ports of Auckland, which has been actively working to keep and hire older workers, says discrimination exists, but a lot of it is unconscious bias.

"There are commonly held misconceptions that if they employ someone close to 65 and have to train them, they will leave within a few years."

But she says there is plenty of evidence that younger workers also leave after a few years, particularly those just starting out in their working life.

"I think it gets more difficult for people if they are over 65. A lot of employers will think they want to reduce their hours or work more flexibly."

Edwards says if a company is not set up with the right systems to allow flexible working, it won't cope.

She has seen change in people's attitudes after hiring older workers into some senior positions. "People see the quality of work and accept it.

"Not all older workers want shorter hours either."

Edwards also points to different standards in different industries, describing the legal profession as one where older workers are valued, compared to customer service roles where there may be a view that older workers might not be as quick to pick up the system.

But not everyone is convinced age discrimination is as much of a problem as some insist.

Nick McKissack, chief executive of the Human Resources Institute of New Zealand, says discrimination is nothing new when it comes to work.

"I think realistically there is discrimination on lots of levels in the workplace. Those are the issues that HR people deal with all the time."

But he doesn't see age discrimination as a major part of the problem and points to the fact that New Zealand has the second highest participation rate for workers over 55 in the OECD countries.

"It suggests it is less of a problem for us than other places."

McKissack says most of the age discrimination examples come via anecdotal stories, and often people use age discrimination as a way to justify their lack of success in a role.

"We don't really have much data about it."

He says the younger generation are more used to changing jobs quite frequently, whereas older workers may be used to staying in a role for a long time, so they might not be as skilled at applying for jobs and presenting themselves well in interview situations.

McKissack says the best advice for older workers would be the same as it is anyone applying for a job: understand your strengths and weaknesses and only apply for jobs that match your skills.

"Maybe older people aren't re-training and re-skilling in areas they should be."

But he does believe there needs to be a conversation about New Zealand's ageing workforce.

He says in the past there has been a focus on getting young workers into jobs, which was probably right. "But I think the conversation has to shift a little bit."

What Liz wants - besides a job - is for the Government to recognise that people like her are not in the official statistics. "The Government needs to know we exist."