Politics of old age
Although older people have much the same political concerns as other age groups, some issues affect them specifically. Over the years, older people have traditionally been concerned about pension payments. In the 21st century older people were a prominent voice in a campaign to reform the local government rating system, because on fixed incomes they struggled with regular rates increases. Health services, future care, mobility and housing are also a major political focus for older people.
The government set up the New Zealand Super Fund in 2001. It was the initiative of the then Minister of Finance Michael Cullen, who wanted to ensure there was enough money to help cover the future cost of state-funded superannuation. Assets were assigned to a global investment fund administered by an independent Crown entity, the Guardians of New Zealand Superannuation. Withdrawals from the fund are not planned until 2029/30.
Unlike other countries, there have been no political parties specifically founded to address the issues of older people in New Zealand, but some parties have courted the ‘grey vote’. During the 1975 general election campaign one of the National Party’s policies was to offer universal superannuation (not means or income tested) which it implemented after becoming government.
New Zealand First has been the party most associated with older voters. It gained a large proportion of older people’s votes during the late 20th and early 21st century through policies such as the removal of 25 cents in the dollar surcharge on taxable income other than national superannuation, opposing means and asset testing for long-term geriatric hospital stays, and introducing the SuperGold card.
As New Zealand’s population ages, it is likely that older voters will become more powerful simply because there will be more of them. Though people 65 and over have a diversity of beliefs and allegiances, they form a highly visible political bloc which will become increasingly attractive to politicians in the future.
At the level of government, there are a number of entities which focus on older people, including the Office for Seniors (in the Ministry of Social Development), Veterans’ Affairs New Zealand (part of the New Zealand Defence Force) and the Commission for Financial Capability (previously known as the Retirement Commission). Work and Income New Zealand manages state-funded national superannuation payments.
Advocacy actions and groups
Grey Power is one of the most prominent and longest-standing older people’s advocacy groups. It was established in Auckland in 1985 after the government placed a tax surcharge on any income retired people had in addition to superannuation. Grey Power has a specific focus on superannuation and health issues, while lobbying on any topical matter affecting older people. Age Concern (which developed out of local old people's welfare councils established from 1948) also advocates for older people, as well as providing valuable support to older people through its accredited visiting service, health promotion, shopping service and support in cases of elder abuse. The New Zealand Association of Gerontology (1982) has been the general professional group concerned with research, policy and advocacy for older people.
With the population ageing, many other advocacy groups have been established in the early 21st century. The Carers Alliance (2004) is a consortium of more than forty national not-for-profit organisations (including Alzheimers New Zealand, Cancer Society New Zealand, CCS Disability Action, Diabetes New Zealand, Stroke Foundation New Zealand, Continence New Zealand, Grandparents Raising Grandchildren) which works closely with government agencies to ensure that family carers are included in public policy, and that the New Zealand Carers' Strategy (2014) is implemented. For older people, these agencies are specifically concerned with elder neglect and abuse, age discrimination, access to services, isolation problems, transport availability, and research on ageing and its implications.
Age-Friendly Cities Project
Currently, much community, local and national interest in New Zealand is around developing plans for age-friendly communities. This is part of an international initiative, the Age-Friendly Cities Project, developed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in the early 21st century. It focuses on raising awareness of the implications of an ageing society and encouraging the establishment and expansion of services, facilities and policies for older people. Hamilton became New Zealand's first age-friendly city in 2018.
Other cities and towns in New Zealand are working towards an age-friendly status, where older people can contribute more, and have better access to facilities and services. The Office for Seniors provides information and advice about the process, including a list of recommended age-friendly project areas:
- outdoor spaces and buildings
- social participation
- respect and social inclusion
- civic participation and information
- community support
- health services.
New Zealanders are living longer, healthier and more active lives. This increased longevity has led to a greater economic contribution by older people, known internationally as the 'silver economy'. It recognises that 'older people work, volunteer, provide care and participate widely in community life. Many families, communities and organisations depend on older people for their skills, knowledge and experience...Older people form an important, growing market for the providers of goods and services.'1
Such changes are likely to have a significant impact on New Zealand society. Businesses will be encouraged to take advantage of the availability of older workers to avoid skill shortages. New modes of age-friendly planning in transport, housing and urban development will become necessary.
The changes brought about by the silver economy require a re-evaluation of older people, to see them as consumers, workers, investors and entrepreneurs. At the same time, it will be important to maintain the more traditional roles of older people in caring for the family and the environment, and in passing on the traditions and heritage of New Zealand's many cultures.