The benefits of older workers (and how workplaces are achieving age diversity)
In many cultures, older people are revered and their experience and wisdom highly-valued. Unfortunately, that is not always the case in the workplace in New Zealand.

One in five people over 65 participate in the labour force, with one in four men and about one in six women.This is actually one of the highest rates of older workers in the among OECD nations, but older workers still suffer discrimination in New Zealand, says Dr Jackie Blue, New Zealand’s Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner.

Older workers can be denied promotion and training opportunities, have interesting tasks withheld from them and suffer bullying. They can also suffer from negative stereotypes including that they are averse to change and inflexible, not tech savvy, and are difficult, lack motivation and block advancement of younger workers. Yet a 2014 survey by the Human Rights Commission found employers generally take a positive view of older workers.

It found that older workers are reliable, productive, good in a crisis and make good mentors. The vast majority were not seeking an easy transition into retirement, preferring a challenging and rewarding role.

For older workers themselves, it was important to feel valued and supported. Hardware chain Bunnings has seen the benefits of employing older workers. We learned a long time ago that older, more experienced team members are an integral part of creating a business that engenders trust and confidence for our customers. Our team spans six generations from 15 to 80, which provides fantastic learning and mentoring opportunities for everyone,” says Andrew Macdonald, Bunnings General Manager, Human Resources, Australia and New Zealand. It also helps us all benefit from the wisdom and character that life experience brings. Our diverse local teams reflect their communities and naturally, mature aged workers have some great experience and can often inspire local customers with their D.I.Y projects and knowledge.

Older workers at the hardware retailer also act as mentors for younger staff members. “This is a win for customers, it's a win for our younger team members and it's a win for the mature age worker,” says Macdonald. Younger team members naturally gravitate to these experienced people and we get informal mentoring and fantastic training and development out of all of this that ultimately our customers benefit from. Team work is absolutely integral to our business and you can’t have teamwork without respect, which our older workers naturally command.  It’s a really important part of our culture.”

Strong work ethic

Supermarket chain Countdown also employs a large number of older people. “The benefit of employing older staff is that they come with a wealth of knowledge and life-skills which generally includes a very strong work ethic,” the company said. More than 2,700 – or 15 per cent – of its 18,000 staff in its stores, distribution centres, and support offices are aged over 55. Nearly 550 staff members have been with the company for 25 years or longer.

We have a huge variety of roles from check-outs, online delivery fulfilment, to marketing and buying. We even have architects and engineers on staff,” a spokesman said. As a supermarket we have full-time, part-time and casual opportunities. Some older team enjoy the flexibility provided by part-time work.”

The supermarket chain says it is committed to offering equal employment opportunities and while it doesn’t have any specific guidelines for older workers, all of its team members have access to support services. Our challenge within the grocery sector of our business, is that a lot of our work is not sedentary, therefore staff need to be fit and healthy to complete tasks such as lifting, bending and standing for long periods of time,” the company says.

Dr Blue says New Zealand businesses need to employ older workers because as baby boomers retire, they are not being replaced by enough younger workers. We’re definitely going to need to keep hold of everyone in the workforce and value and cherish them, and that includes older workers and expect them to work till past 65,” she says. One of the keys to hiring older workers is to make them feel valued, says Blue.

“Everyone feels that they want to be valued,” she says. “Older workers are probably not being used as mentors as much as they could, be because it’s a huge wonderful resource and a way to pass on knowledge and institutional knowledge.”

In terms of hiring and interviewing older workers, employers should recognise that they might have an age bias. “When they go to an interview, they understand that we all have bias and that’s just the way it is and just to accept it and to really try and look past that and look at the value that person brings to the job and the skills that they have,” she says.

The Human Rights Commission says employers should plan for an ageing workforce, including things such as transitioning older workers into retirement, offering flexible work options, using older workers as mentors, and more training, especially in digital and technology

They need to develop a culture that values age and experience and lead by example – by hiring more older workers and putting more older workers up for training.