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Ageism: The age-old work problem that won't go away

Updated: May 20, 2020

Rob Stock 05:00, Mar 02 2019 In the Sunday Star Times, New Zealand

Newly-appointed Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner Dr Saunoamaali'i Karanina Sumeo feels older workers and jobseekers' voices need to be heard.

Graham Shepherd is a sparky with a long CV, too long it seems to get a job.

He finished up in his last role a year ago, and since then, the 68 year-old hasn't come within cooee of landing another job.

He's been site supervisor on some big projects, including the recently completed Justice Precinct in Christchurch, and also Canterbury University's Rutherford Regional Science and Innovation Centre.

"I've applied for no end of jobs I'm suited for, but I haven't got an interview for a single one of them," he says.

He's applied for sparky roles beneath his experience grade, but no luck."I presume they just see the date of birth, and think 'too old, not enough time left in the workforce, so it's not worth putting money into them'," he says.

It's so frustrating, seeing shortages of electricians, and electricians being brought in from overseas, when he is not being given a chance.

He can't fault the immigrants' work ethic, but says his experience shows the quality of work they do isn't always good.

Shepherd would also travel to work, and he'll do long hours, if needed.

"I'll go anywhere," he says. "Give me one weekend a month. I'll work six-day weeks."


Like many older people, Shepherd wants and needs to work. For him it's a case of wanting to make a contribution, and needing to pay the mortgage, having started over 15 years ago after a divorce.

And it shouldn't be a problem because unemployment is at historic lows, and employers are screaming skills shortages.

And yet, Shepherd and others like him feel the cold shadow of ageism blighting their chances.

Newly-appointed Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner Dr Saunoamaali'i Karanina Sumeo says older workers and jobseekers' voices are not among the voices she has heard since taking office in November.

"I was very aware they weren't there," she says.

Sumeo is Samoan, a culture in which elders have high levels of cultural capital, but in the jobs market, she's heard enough to know ageism is a real force blighting people's lives.

Anthony Powell is a 70-year-old teacher from Wellington. He has been looking for work, and is a specialist teacher in an area where there is a teacher shortage, and yet he still can't find work.

"I don't think people recognise how big, or urgent this is."

She says New Zealand needs a national strategy to deal to ageism in the jobs market because there is a national need for employers to learn to value older workers.

"We can't keep milking the international labour force. We are not the only country struggling with an ageing workforce," she says.

By 2038, one in five people will be over 65, she says.

"We need to shift the perception of giving an opportunity to older workers. They need us, but we need to understand we need them."


People affected by ageism find it impossible to gather evidence to support their perception that it's happening to them.

Unemployed Wellington school teacher Anthony Powell, aged 70, specialises in teaching IT, an area where he says schools are experiencing a severe shortage.

"Some schools don't teach it because they can't find qualified teachers," he says.

And yet, he's not getting invited to even interview for roles he's applying for.

He could get by on NZ Super, but he sponsors children into school in Papua New Guinea, and will have to stop, if he can't increase his income.

It's niggled Powell so much he's gone to lengths to prove to employers that he's fit by completing an Outward Bound course, and that he's up-to-date with IT by getting fresh qualifications in subjects he's already a master of.

But many years ago, after being wrongly pursued by the authorities for driving infringement fines in a muddle-up over licence plates that took him months to sort out, he's been trying to find out if there are black marks against his name on some government database somewhere.

"I want to see a psychiatrist and get some assurance that's I'm not delusional," he says.


Marcelle Lamont from Clendon in the South of Auckland, worked for two decades as a social worker with Oranga Tamariki, working with troubled families.

It's hard, distressing work, and she decided to take a break, at the end of 2017, when she was 65.

"I was coming home emotionally and physically exhausted after days dealing with really awful situations," she said.

But once she stepped out of the workforce, stepping back in proved impossible, and yet, she says "there's a shortage of social workers."

It's so frustrating because at the ministry she had colleagues in their 60s and 70s, and they were treated well.

She leaves her date of birth off CVs now, but employees can find out easily enough, by asking to see a driving licence, or by looking at the applicants' length of experience.

"Employers want somebody in their 20s with 20 years of experience," she jokes bitterly.


When it consulted on ageism last year, the Office for Seniors heard from older workers who felt strategies that drive the political and social revolution that gave women a fairer crack of the whip in the jobs market could be adopted to tackle ageism.

Suggestions included the government modelling the behaviour it wants from the private sector, as it is doing on gender equality.

Unconscious bias training for employers also made a big difference to women's chances of fair treatment during the hiring process, people told the office.

It was even suggested that the Human Rights Commission establish a recruitment agency specifically for older people.

A national strategy may emerge later this year, following the consultation, but one aspect that was suggested, namely a "toolkit for employers" to help them get the best from the ageing workforce, is definitely going to happen.


Paul Jarvie from the Employers and Manufacturers Association is part of a group working on a toolkit for employers.

He is 66, and has researched deeply into what older workers want and have to offer.

"My role is to try to change employers' mindsets," he says, telling employers "you have to open your eyes, and not look at their age, or physical appearance, but at what they can do".

He knows that's not happening in many cases.

"If you are 48, people looking for a job will be seen as old, and if you are 55 or 56 and in work, your peers will see you as old," he says.

An Employers and Manucturers Association survey showed only 11 per cent of its members had a proactive policy on hiring and managing older workers.

Just how threatened older workers can feel, even when in work, was shown when the association called a meeting of its older employees to discuss age-friendly policies.

"They were in absolute fear. It took three-quarters of an hour to dispel their fears about what the meeting was really about," says Jarvie.


Around a quarter of over 65s are in work, though little research has been done into their working lives, including whether their skills are being valued.

There is little local research, but an influential survey from 2002, showed employers had positive views of older workers related to "dependability factors" such as reliability, loyalty and job commitment.

Negative factors related to problems with technology and "adaptability factors" such as resisting change, and being less flexible and less willing to work long hours. They were also seen as less willing to be trained, and less willing to be team players.

Jarvie has researched the myths fuelling ageism, and finds overseas research has proven them to be groundless, including the technology myth.

But both employers and employees need to be realistic.

"When you look at the list that older people want employers to accommodate, it's a pretty rich list," Jarvie says.

Submissions to the Office for Seniors included calls for flexible hours and conditions, providing unpaid leave, job sharing or shared working hours, shorter weeks and more accessible, ergonomic and age-friendly workplaces.

Older workers have to invest in themselves to keep up to speed, Jarvie says.


Many believe attitudes to older workers will change as the population continues to age, and the skills shortage continues to bite.

"My feeling is it's going to be a natural process because of the ageing of the workforce," Shepherd says.

But for him, and others like him, it's not happening fast enough.

"The voices of older workers and jobseekers' need to be heard". Photo: by Carole Railton (copyright)

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