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More women in the labour force, fewer stay-at-home parents than 1986

Many more women are heading to work, and fewer parents are staying out of the labour force to look after children compared with 30 years ago.

The Household Labour Force Survey (HLFS) has been collecting information on New Zealand’s employment and unemployment since 1986. The most recent (March 2016 quarter) results were published on Wednesday.

Statistics New Zealand marks the 30th anniversary of the survey this year, and has found some remarkable changes in the make-up of the labour force since the survey began.

Higher proportions of women and older people are in the labour force (people who are employed or unemployed) than in 1986. Fewer parents are staying at home to look after children, and it’s less common for teenagers to be working.

Women’s participation in the labour force (as a proportion of the working-age population) has increased by almost 10 percentage points since the survey began – rising to 64.0 percent, compared with 54.7 percent in 1986. But men are participating less, with male participation at 74.4 percent this year, compared with 80.1 percent in 1986.

“Over the last 30 years, economic events and policy shifts have influenced participation in work,” labour and income statistics manager Mark Gordon said. “Among the changes that appeared to attract people to (or keep people in) the labour market were youth minimum wages in 1994, the end to compulsory retirement in 1999, and paid parental leave in 2002.”

The survey tells us that after ‘retirement’, the most common reason given for not being in the labour force in 1986 was ‘at home looking after children’ (21.1 percent of people). In 2016 this figure has dropped to 13.9 percent, and the second-most common reason is now ‘studying’ (16.3 percent of people).

“Today the lower prevalence of people staying home to look after children shows how different labour market opportunities are now for parents,” Mr Gordon said.

Teen spirit and golden years

In 1986, 70.9 percent of 15–19-year-olds were participating in the labour force. In 2016, only 48.7 percent are. In comparison, less than 10 percent of people aged 65 years and over were in the labour force back in 1986. The 2016 estimates show this has grown to more than 22 percent.

“Back in 1986, young people were more likely to be joining the labour force at an earlier stage in life, and there was less participation in school and post-school study,” Mr Gordon said.

Trawling the local rag for job opportunities

We can track the traditional method of looking for jobs advertised in the newspaper over this 30-year period. Though it should be noted, people who only look at job advertisements in the newspaper (and do nothing else) are not counted as being unemployed, as they are not ‘actively seeking work’ (though they are still counted as being ‘jobless’).

“In the March 1992 quarter, when unemployment was running as high as 11 percent, 179,800 people were looking at jobs ads in the newspaper – the highest-ever number of Kiwis doing this at one particular time. It’s also a figure that we’ll probably never reach again, given the use of the internet-based job searching and other social media,” Mr Gordon said.

Changes ahead for HLFS

While this year marks the 30th anniversary of the HLFS, it also marks the end of an era for the survey in its current form. In the first week of April an improved, redeveloped HLFS went into the field to collect information for the June 2016 quarter.

Improving labour market statistics has information about the redeveloped HLFS, with more information to come over the next few months.

The 30th anniversary of the HLFS was also celebrated at a symposium hosted by Statistics NZ and the New Zealand Work Research Institute on 20 April 2016.

View the presentation slides from the symposium.


For media enquiries contact: Mark Gordon, Wellington 04 931 4600,
Authorised by Liz MacPherson, Government Statistician, 6 May 2016 

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