Minister calls for national strategy for workers

An ageing population, a declining birth rate and a deepening skills shortage means a perfect storm is brewing on how New Zealand manages its ageing workforce.

A white paper called Act Now Age Later, launched by the Minister for Seniors, Tracey Martin, calls for a National Strategy on the Ageing Workforce and the development of a toolkit for employers and workers.

The report is the result of a working group made up of government departments and agencies, including the Commission for Financial Capability (CFFC), the Council of Trade Unions, recruitment companies and the Employers and Manufacturers Association.

Retirement Commissioner Diane Maxwell says New Zealand’s ageing workforce is part of a global trend that should be faced as an opportunity rather than a crisis.

“This is a predictable demographic change that we can’t afford to ignore,” Ms Maxwell says. “Some of us will need to work past 65; many of us will want to, though we may want more flexibility.

“If employers want the benefit of the experience of older workers, they need to start planning how they will attract and retain them.”

In May, the CFFC revisited the issue of NZ’s ageing workforce in a survey of 500 companies, which confirmed there was widespread concern about the impact on business of the ageing workforce, yet a lag in the preparation of strategies or policies.

“The CFFC hears from thousands of New Zealanders who tell us they are seeking up-skilling and retraining, and want a level playing field to enable them keep working,” Ms Maxwell says.

“We need to be prepared, and that won’t happen without actively and intentionally addressing the issues facing our ageing workforce.”

The white paper is viewed as a springboard for future work, which will lead to better collaboration by Government and other agencies to support lifelong learning, as well as raising awareness around the potential benefits of employing and engaging with an ageing workforce.


Jim Sonerson, 85, has been working for Brendon Hart, at Harts Pharmacy in Warkworth, for more than 10 years.

Jim Sonerson, left, and Brendon Hart.

Jim Sonerson, of Warkworth, is a sprightly 85-year-old who dreads the day he finds himself too old to work.

“I tried retirement once, but it’s not for me,” he says. “It was so boring.”

Jim’s working life has been a varied one. The list includes professional ice skater, boxer, farm manager, truck driver and courier driver.

For the past 10 years, however, he has worked for Harts Pharmacy, delivering prescriptions, particularly to the elderly and retirement homes all over the district. He loves the job because it keeps him active but, more importantly, it keeps him in touch with people.

He works a few hours every afternoon, five days a week. And although it’s not in his job description, he often finds himself doing odd jobs along the way, such as trimming hedges and changing light bulbs.

Pharmacist Brendon Hart says he had 90 applications for the delivery job when it was advertised, but had no qualms about hiring someone of Jim’s age.

“At the end of the day, it comes down to energy and attitude, and age is irrelevant,” he says. “Jim is well-known in the district, is trustworthy and very caring, and because of his age, he also relates well to the struggles that some of our customers face. He is a great ambassador for the business.”

Janis Grummit, of Matakana, is 66 and plans never to retire.

“Society seems to believe that as you age your brain deteriorates, but that’s rubbish,” Janis says.

“Recent research has highlighted two important factors about the brain – you can re-grow brain cells throughout your life (neurogenesis) and you can re-wire around damage in the brain because the brain is malleable (neuroplasticity).

“Age brings wisdom and social skills, and what we should be trying to do is create a balanced workforce. It would be good for communities and families, as well as companies.”

Janis is a social anthropologist who has worked with business leaders on creating wisdom for more than 30 years. As well as her home-based business called Workplace Wisdom, she runs Wiring Warriors, which teaches people how to keep their brain healthy and alert. She also blogs, gives talks, runs workshops, manages a number of social media sites and is involved in the Matakana community.

“Retiring to spend your time playing golf and going on holidays is the quickest route to dementia.

“It’s not when you die that matters, it’s how you live before you die that counts.”

Janis says that even if she won Lotto, she wouldn’t stop working because she loves what she does and she knows it’s good for her.

“The only thing that would change is that I’d be in a position to do everything for free. That would be wonderful.”

Mick Berger was around 12 years old when he first started working his father’s D2 bulldozer.

It’s nothing for Mahurangi West earthmoving contractor, Mick Berger, 68, to work seven days a week in summer, starting at 5am and finishing around 9.30-10pm. He has been driving bulldozers since he was a kid and doesn’t plan to stop anytime soon. Asked what he would do if he did retire, his answer was simple: “Polish my bulldozers.”

“My machines are running well, my health’s good and the phone keeps ringing, so why would I retire to die on the couch?” he says. “As long as the bread’s fresh and the beer’s cold, I’m happy.”

Mick estimates he’s conservatively done at least 67,000 hours since he first jumped on a machine full-time to work for his dad Rupert in Ahuroa. He has always worked as a one-man-band, although his three daughters – Sophie, Tessa and Charlotte – have at times been called upon to drive the loaders and compactors. With no sons to take over the business, it is likely his cherished Caterpillar machines – a D2, D4D and D6C – will eventually go to a museum in Cambridge.

“If you’re in good health, then why stop doing what you love? Work gives me a reason to get out of bed in the morning. I pack a lunch, do the job and come home feeling like I’ve achieved something. I take a lot of pride in my work so it gives me a great deal of satisfaction.”