NZ ranks high in global ageing report – experts respond

New Zealand is the 10th best country in the world to grow old in, ranking above both Australia and the UK as part of an international assessment of how the elderly are faring globally.

elderly men
Credit: Gabriel Rocha (Flickr)

The Global AgeWatch Index 2014, carried out by researchers at HelpAge International and the University of Southampton, ranks 96 countries according to the social and economic wellbeing of older people, representing over 90 per cent of peopled aged 60+ across the world.

The report shows that income, health, personal capabilities and an enabling social environment are all important factors of wellbeing in senior citizens – which can help governments identify policies and institutional contexts that lead to better lives for older people.

In addition, the report reveals that the number of over 60s will rise from 12 per cent of the global population in 2014 to over 20 per cent by 2050, suggesting that supporting ageing populations will become an even bigger priority in the future.

The SMC has collected the following expert commentary. Feel free to use these quotes in your reporting. If you would like to contact a New Zealand expert, please contact the SMC (04 499 5476;

Dr. Sally Keeling, Senior Lecturer at the University of Otago, Christchurch, comments:

“The Insight Report from Help Age International provides a useful overview, using a robust methodology for international comparison across 4 significant domains: Income security, Health status, Capability, and Enabling environment. New Zealand can stand tall on the basis of its overall 10th ranking, but a closer look at the variation across these domains reminds us of where future development is essential.

“It is important to remember that these national comparisons mask significant internal variation – for example, NZ is ranked 9th in health status, which conceals significant health inequalities and shorter life expectancies for Maori and Pacific people. NZ ranking on ‘capability’ is even higher, at 6th in the world, which reflects our historical high standards of compulsory education, alongside early rejection of compulsory retirement. Recent NZ data shows high rates of workforce participation in the over 65 year age group, although questions remain as to how this relates to the low scoring (at 27th in the world) on income security – are older people working beyond age 65 because they choose to, or need to?

“The lowest ranking for NZ is in the ‘enabling environment’ domain. There is some NZ research which might contest some of these measures, but taken at a global level, the report signals where NZ policy and service development could focus its efforts. A recent call from Dr Alex Kalache (founder of the WHO Age Friendly Cities movement) that NZ could aspire to become the first ‘Age Friendly Country’ in the world echoes this aspiration. In the areas of civic and social participation, supported by good access to public transport, and a focus on physical safety (in healthier homes and communities), this report signals useful directions for change, and the prospect that older people in increasing numbers will lead us to make NZ a great place to grow up and grow old.”

Dr. Judith Davey, Senior Associate at Victoria University’s Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, comments:

“This report includes data from 91 countries – not all the UN member states. The data has to be publicly available and comparable, which limits the choice of indicators. There is huge variation in reliability, definitions and dates of information. There is not breakdown by gender up to now. So some caution is needed in interpretation and rankings should not be scrutinised too closely. The overall rankings for the UK, NZ and Australia are very close. Data from four domains is included.

“NZ ranks above Australia in indicators of income security because it has a universal pension based solely on age and residency/citizenship. This straightforward system is fairly rare in global terms. NZ also has a comparatively low rate of poverty among older people, although many are just above the “poverty line” used (50% of the national equivalised median income/consumption – here 60% is more commonly used).

“NZ ranks just under Australia in terms of health status, but above the UK. Health status measures are life expectancy (LE) at 60 and healthy LE (from the WHO Global Burden of Disease Study). This is much better than LE at birth for looking at physical wellbeing in an ageing society. This dimension also includes psychological wellbeing based on a Gallup World View survey – Share of people over 50 who answered “yes” to the question: “Do you feel your life has an important purpose or meaning?” So there is a mix of objective data (LE) and subjective opinion (from individuals).

“The relative ranks for the three countries for Capacity are about the same as for Health Status. The “capacity” measures are employment and education. These have been chosen to reflect “coping capacities and resilience of older people”, but I have some doubts about how relevant the indicators are. NZ ranks above many other countries in the proportion of older people, especially 65 plus, who are still in the workforce. Our policies encourage this, such as no work-test for NZ Superannuation (which allows people to supplement their pension with work, often part-time) and no compulsory retirement. These policies are probably more encouraging than the Australian settings in this respect. The UK has only recently abolished compulsory retirement. The “educational attainment” measure – percentage of the population aged 60+ with secondary or higher education – refers to a much earlier period in life and is not as relevant as measures of access to life-long education, which is not good in NZ.

“The Enabling Environment measure include indicators of policies and programmes to enable older people to be socially connected, including physical safety and access to public transport. These are also based on Gallup World View data – percentage of people aged 50+ who responded “yes” to the survey questions: “If you were in trouble, do you have relatives or friends you can count on to help you whenever you need them, or not?” “Do you feel safe walking alone at night in the city or area where you live?” “In this country, are you satisfied or dissatisfied with your freedom to choose what you do with your life?” “In the city or area where you live, are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the public transportation systems?” These are all subjective and there are questions of coverage, reliability and comparability for this source. Australia and NZ rank below the UK in this domain.

“It is hard to say what could be done to increase the rankings for NZ given the methodological questions associated with the data. Why should the UK rank 3 on Enabling Environment measures and NZ 30th? There is not a great deal of difference in rankings between NZ and Australia except for Income Security and I have explained that. Given the worldwide scope of the exercise it is hard to recommend any changes from an NZ perspective even though we have research findings in many of the areas covered.”