Grey is the new black

Written by Carl Davidson, Director of Strategy and Insight, Research First

The chances are that you’ve heard that New Zealand has an ‘ageing population’. This means that the proportion of older people in the population is increasing, while the proportion of younger people is declining.

But you may not be aware just how fast this is happening, or what a radical change it signals.

Try some statistics: The number of people in New Zealand over 65 is projected to rise from about 550,000 to about one million by sometime in the 2020s; The number of people aged 85 and over will double shortly after that, and then double again by 2061 (by which time there will be about 150,000 of us in that age bracket).

Or try it another way: At the moment there are about 18 New Zealanders aged 65 and over for every 100 people of working age. By 2051 this will have grown to 43 per 100.

Social scientists agree that ‘demography is destiny’ but there is far less agreement about what that destiny will look like. Some commentators talk about how we’re facing a ‘grey tsunami’, arguing that our ageing society will create intractable problems for our health and welfare systems along with our labour market.

Others see breath-taking opportunities in the rise of the so-called ‘Silver Economy’. As Bob Hoffman noted recently, if people in the USA aged over 50 were a separate country they would constitute the third largest economy in the world.

There is no doubt that the developments in health care and lifestyles that are driving the increases in longevity are also keeping New Zealanders active and healthy for longer. This means that our ageing society should present a wonderful resource of wisdom and experience for both our communities and our employers.

However, research published earlier this year by the EEO working with AUT’s Work Research Institute shows that New Zealand organisations in general are not well prepared to deal with an ageing workforce. The research also shows that a range of negative stereotypes about older workers remain common.

The EEO / AUT report outlines a number of ways that organisations can engage with older workers (and it’s worth reading in detail) but the question that interests social scientists is ‘where do negative stereotypes of older people come from?’.

As Psychology Today points out, it was only a few hundred years ago that young guns were powdering their wigs grey in order to appeal older and wiser. Teenage angst may not be unique to the Twentieth Century but historians struggle to find any evidence of it before the 1870s.

In the intervening 150 years we have created a world that is obsessed with youth. In the words of Harold Kushner, it is as if we have set the peak of life at 25 and insist that ‘everything is downhill from there’. For the first time in recorded history, we expect the old to emulate the young rather than the other way around.

How this happened is a complex story with multiple influences. The short version (which is all we have room for here) finds blame in the rise of the advertising industry, the influence of the baby boomers, and a growing obsession with novelty in all its forms. In this world those who display ‘disruptive thinking’ trump those who rely on experience and wisdom.

The evidence from the social sciences shows that this is a prejudice that diminishes us all. The research here is clear that older people use their brains more efficiently, tend to be less bothered by making a mistake, more resistant to criticism, and more confident (on average) than younger people. Research from the University Geriatrics Institute of Montreal is clear that the ‘experience and acquired knowledge from a lifetime of decision making’ offsets any declining ability to learn new information’ amongst older people.

There is little doubt that New Zealand communities and workplaces are going to need to start drawing on an increasing number of older people as our society ages. But the smart move is in preparing for that change now. As the old adage warns us, by failing to prepare we are really preparing to fail.

Research First is the research partner for PRINZ. Visit them at