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Diversity or Polarisation? The Growth in Work-Rich and Work-Poor Individuals, Families and Communities between 1986 and 1996

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posted on 03.11.2021, 22:03 by Callister, Paul

Despite a period of dramatic job loss from the mid 1980s to the mid 1990s, long-term employment data do not support the view that paid work has been disappearing from the New Zealand economy. However, the distribution of work for people aged 25-59 has been changing. In particular, between 1986 and 1996 there was a strong decline in full-time employment of prime-aged men, along with a decline in full-time employment amongst young people. In 1986, just over a tenth of prime-aged men were either not in paid work or worked part time. By 1996, this had increased to a quarter. While most of the changes in male employment were driven by shifts in labour demand, a small group of men actively chose to reduce their hours of work or to have breaks from paid work. In the decade 1986 to 1996, formal educational qualifications became a more powerful predictor of a person's employment status. In particular, by the early 1990s, prime-aged men and women without a formal educational qualification faced major disadvantages in the labour market. In contrast, the variable of gender, while still very important, weakened as a predictor of employment status. Employment data also show that there was some shift away from "standard" weekly hours of paid work for prime-aged people between 1986 and 1996. For both men and women, there was some growth in the proportion who worked very short hours as well as an increase in the proportion working 50 or more hours per week. Some of this appears to have taken place by choice, but some due to changing demands by employers. Employment status also has some association with living arrangement for prime-aged men. However, while employed men were far more likely to live in a couple than men not in work at both the beginning and end of the main period studied, this relationship weakened. In 1986, education had little predictive power regarding male living arrangements. However, by 1996, its importance had increased. Assortative mating patterns mean that couples tend to be education-rich or education-poor. However, the concentration of education within particular couples changed little over the decade. There was a shift within prime-aged couples and households to either work-poor or work-rich status between 1986 and 1996. In 1996, just under a fifth of prime-aged households were work-poor. The significant growth in the proportion of work-poor couples and households took place in the period of job loss between 1986 and 1991. While the strong employment growth in the economy in the next five years increased the proportion of work-rich households it only marginally reduced the proportion of work-poor households. In the 1990s, education-poor couples were over-represented amongst prime-aged work-poor couples. Yet, the New Zealand data suggest that a wide range of other factors influence the growth of this family type. This includes health issues and barriers to employment amongst well-qualified immigrants. The reasons behind the growth of work-rich couples are also complex. They include push factors such as well-educated women increasingly wanting to have a long-term attachment to the labour force, through to pull factors of women obtaining work to supplement family income in the face of declining male income. On a geographic area basis, the data does show that in the 1990s there were extremes of work-rich and work-poor residential areas. In addition, using various measures, the proportion of work-poor areas increased between 1986 and 1996. There was also a small, but important, group of area units that remained work-poor for the ten years studied. A significant proportion of long-term work-poor areas were also classified as "deprived". Finally, the rapid rise in educational attainment over the last decade was unevenly spread on a geographic basis. While there remain many communities where there is a wide mixture of education levels amongst the residents, the spatial clustering of similarly qualified (or unqualified) people is important in New Zealand.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Social Policy

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Social and Cultural Studies


Hawke, Gary; Davey, Judith