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Stories III

Overseas – and experienced

by Rachel Helyer Donaldson

Kiwi ex-pat journalist, Rachel Helyer Donaldson, has unearthed a massive trend in the demographic profile of New Zealanders flooding into Europe to do what is traditionally known as the ‘OE’ (overseas experience). It seems that it is now overwhelmingly the over 50s who are keen on some footloose adventure based in what for most is the ‘mother country’ (the UK). Good luck to them! If you are a younger Kiwi abroad, be warned that your folks (or your friends’ folks) may be eyeing up your couch for some free accommodation.

Surprisingly, this journalist claims you can only house sit in London if you are over 40 and have owned your own home. Not so!

June 19-25 2004

It’s midwinter and the annual migration of Kiwis exiting these shores for the northern summer is in full swing. Among the bright-eyed backpackers leaving the country are scores of baby-boomers, jetting off for an extended European stay or a longer working holiday.

It used to be that tourists of a certain age opted for an easy ride – cruises and coaches. But the generation that pioneered the backpacking trail in the 70s isn’t ready to embrace organised sightseeing and floating gin palaces just yet. Terrorism and killer viruses may be affecting tourism worldwide, but for baby-boomers, it seems there’s never been a better time to travel. Ideally, elderly parents are still in good health and the kids are off their hands. Better yet, those kids are in London, which equals a cheap place to crash for the baby-boomer travelling on the Kiwi dollar. A growing number of fiftysomethings are departing New Zealand on a long-term or permanent basis. Some are empty-nesters keen to spend time with their kids – such as this writer’s 56-year-old father, who recently came over to the UK for eight months to teach and travel. Others, who had their kids young, are finally getting the chance to do a late-in-life OE. Aucklanders Reg, 60, and Caroline Lawson, 59, are one such couple. A year ago, they set off on their first OE, moving to London. The bulk of their time has been spent travelling throughout the UK, Europe and Egypt. Both are in their second marriage and neither managed to travel in their twenties because of family commitments. The children grew up, but then there were elderly parents and family pets to care for. Suddenly, three friends died and Reg underwent major heart surgery. The Lawsons decided to go for it.

“We thought we better go before we get any older and we can’t,” says Caroline, who previously worked in publishing. The trip – which will include another year’s travelling, through Asia and Australia, on the way home – has been largely financed by renting three Auckland properties and pounds earned in London. Reg, a retired council supervisor, says that they make sure the money goes as far as possible. Getting discounts for being over 50 and having the flexibility to take cheap flights are a big boost to the budget. The couple are also prepared to stay in hostels. That’s part of the charm, says Reg. “There’s a lot of communication; you learn about the next place – go to this one, don’t go here.”

“We’ve got used to earplugs and sleeping masks!” adds Caroline. “But the young ones really are very good. When they see you are a bit older, they go out of their way to be reasonable.”

Kiwis who are currently in their fifties have always been a well-travelled bunch. A 1995 Statistics New Zealand study on baby-boomers found those born between 1946 and 1950 have remained the largest group of New Zealanders travelling overseas – “despite being the smallest five-year age group among the boomers”. In 2000, that same group, then aged between 50 and 54, showed the highest propensity to travel, making up 55 out of every 100 departures, according to the Statistics department’s Tourism and Migration 2000 Report.

Travel for the younger set (those aged 15 to 29) fell between 1990 and 2000. But the number of New Zealanders in their fifties leaving the country for a year or more has doubled over the past two decades, from three percent in 1992 to almost six percent in 2002. Many of these boomers abroad are heading to Britain, the traditional home of the Kiwi OE. Those aged 45-54 made up 28 percent of New Zealanders travelling there, registering the most visits of any age group in 2002.

That’s well up on a decade ago when, in 1993, only 17 percent of Kiwis visiting the UK were that age. Further-more, it’s well ahead of the second-largest group to holiday there in 2002, those traditional OE-ers aged between 25 and 34, who made up just 17 percent of New Zealand arrivals. The boomers are actually doing a lot more travelling than their footloose children. And in the tradition of the twentysomething OE, they’re coming to work and live, not just holiday. It’s difficult to gauge exact figures on this: neither the British High Commission nor the UK Home Office records the number of work permits granted by age. A quarter of a million qualify for UK passports and thousands more can get entry for four years through a British grandparent. But those who deal with Kiwis coming to the UK say the fifty-something OE is on the increase.

Boomers mobbed the British High Commission’s stand at last year’s Thorndon Fair in Wellington, says Commission press officer Bryan Nicolson. “The bulk of the interest we had was from that age group, even though we set it up for younger people.”

“Stacks” of older Kiwis are coming to the UK, says Ana Hensley, publisher of Recruitment UK, a magazine about UK work opportunities that is distributed throughout Australasia and South Africa. Hensley estimates the number of people coming over that are outside “the usual 18 to 30 age group” has increased by around 20 percent since Recruitment UK started in 1999.

She recalls two widows in their sixties, who, in 2002, found themselves summer jobs at a castle. They asked Hensley if they were too old to do their OE. “I said, you’re never too old, if your heart’s in it.”

More and more over-fifties are being employed via 1st Contact, a prominent recruiter of overseas workers. Interviews are done via phone or webcam and jobs are secured and work permits are granted before the recruits depart, to ensure entry into the UK. Educational recruitment director Ryan Botha says he’s “definitely noticed more empty-nesters” coming to London to work; head of medical sales Laura Marks says that international nurses in that age group are up, too, by 20 to 30 percent. There has been particular interest from New Zealanders wanting to relocate. Facing staff shortages similar to New Zealand, Britain’s National Health Service has become much more open towards both overseas recruitment and “the subject of age”, she says. “These people have a large amount to offer and bring years of clinical speciality with them.”

Around a tenth of the teachers (8.4 percent) placed in the UK by New Zealand recruitment agency Southern Alps have been over 50, says director Oli Hille. Most work in greater London. “The feedback I get is that it’s a fun place to be. It’s no different for the over-fifties or under-fifties.”

Once they’ve got some pounds in their pockets, more boomer tourists are opting for independent travel, travel operators say. Adventure travel operator Kumuka Worldwide says around 20 percent of customers would be over 50. Last year, Haggis Tours, which markets “wild and sexy Scotland” to the 18-to-35s, had several hundred customers aged 40-plus, says sales manager Roger Kerr.

“We often get someone saying, my mum’s coming on tour, do you think she’ll be all right? And we say, of course, as long as you’ll be all right having your mum on tour!”

Some parents don’t just come on tour, they come to stay. Sian Chalke’s parents have done two long-term stints in the UK in the seven years she’s lived here. In 1998, Jan, 59, and Neville Chalke, 64, felt they had got into a rut in New Zealand. They swapped a spacious four-bedroom home in Invercargill for a poky bedsit in London. After 18 months, sick of crowds and crime and missing the outdoors – and with Jan’s elderly mother in need of care – they flew back to live in Dunedin. But the couple found they missed London more than they thought. “We found we weren’t quite ready yet to stay in one place,” says Jan, a teacher who has a British passport through her father.

“You realise you’re physically isolated in New Zealand,” adds British-born Neville. “We missed the availability of everything London has to offer.”

They moved back to London for Sian’s wedding in 2001. Jan teaches business studies at a London comprehensive and Neville – who used to own a picture-framing company – works for a framing shop whose customers include Helena Bonham Carter and Boy George. He is upbeat about trading status for lifestyle. Work is now “simply something that pays the rent”.

If you’re over 40 and have owned a home, it’s possible to housesit in London. The Chalkes have done several house-sitting stints, but their plum job has to be looking after Linda McCartney’s sister’s Tuscan villa – sleeping in the same guestroom used by Sir Paul.

The couple currently live in a comfortable one-bedroom place in Swiss Cottage, literally around the corner from the block of flats where they met in 1967 during Jan’s first OE. “We haven’t gone very far,” Jan quips. “Just to a smaller flat!”

Sian, 31, says having her parents here has “definitely made me appreciate them more”. They’ve got to know her Scottish husband, and there’s no guilt about being far away. “When your parents live on the other side of the world you do feel a certain pressure – you’re conscious of everyone back there ageing.”

She makes an effort to spend quality time with her parents every few weeks. But flatting with her parents for six months in 1999 was a disaster. “Flatmates don’t fold your washing for you! I was pretty horrible to them and I seemed to revert to being 17 again – listening to loud music in my room and ignoring them.”

Adult children can find themselves in a strange reversal of roles when parents come to London. Suddenly you’re playing host to mum and dad. There are plenty of positive aspects to having your folks in the UK, but what if they outstay their welcome? After their years of paying for music lessons and ferrying you to netball, you can hardly deny your parents a spot on the sofa. Working in Milton Keynes, my father would come down to London almost every weekend to spend time with his kids. There were three of us living here, so we could share dad round – and keep our relationship with him intact.

“You’re really obliged to do it, aren’t you?” muses Caroline Lawson’s son Guy Lincoln, 29, who lives in London. The Lawsons have stopped off with Lincoln and his New Zealand wife in between their jaunts to Europe. Lincoln says that having his mum and stepfather to stay on a regular basis could be a little stressful. “I wouldn’t say it’s a pain, but sometimes it hasn’t been convenient, if we had other people already staying. But even then, we always say, ‘You can come and kip on the couch.’”

But he admits he once stayed with them for six months when he moved back to Auckland. “So I’m just returning the favour!”

Lorraine Frost, 55, left family and friends behind in New Zealand to move to London on her own. The former Tauranga nurse has gained a whole new social life and furthered her new career as a social worker. Frost, who is on an ancestry visa, has a permanent role with a local council, working as part of a specialist mental health team for the elderly. She says she is both gaining valuable experience and boosting her retirement fund.

Frost spends her spare time taking short breaks to places like Paris and seeing musicals. Workmates, a childhood penpal and friends of her daughters make up a varied social network. “Most weekends I’m doing something. I’m never home really!”

She says that it was hard leaving her elderly mother, daughters and grandsons back in New Zealand. But a trip back home at Christmas helped.

“I knew I had missed people, but I definitely wasn’t ready to come back. There’s too much still to see – I have a list a mile long that just keeps getting longer. The more I tick off, the more there is to do.”

Cheap communication makes it easy to keep in touch with those back home. Her older grandsons love getting souvenirs in the post. “They go to school and talk about Nana in London.”

Frost is one of those creating a new side to the OE scene, says Recruitment UK’s Hensley, a Kiwi who has worked in London since 1989. “Older people are less likely to have friends who have done it before them. They may not have the social networks here to help them get set up, so they’re pioneering a new kind of traveller.” Certainly, members of this new breed can find themselves facing different stresses and problems to the twenty-something backpacker. Moving to another country is a huge deal for anyone. But although a 25-year-old is still likely to be overwhelmed by crowds and concerned about crime, they’re arguably more adaptable to their new surroundings. Older, home-owning OE-ers have a bigger adjustment to make, both in terms of living conditions and travel. Flat sharing and staying in hostels stretch the budget, but can be trying. Urban and fast-paced, London is a young person’s city – there are twice as many people aged 25 to 34 than there are in their fifties. Retirement at 65 is compulsory in the UK, so jobseekers over 60 may encounter ageism, some recruitment agents warn. It’s also worth noting that 21st-century Britain is a vastly different place to the “mother country” envisioned so fondly by some baby-boomers. Sian Chalke talks about feeling protective of her parents when they came to London. They had moved into a grotty flat with noisy neighbours. “I was concerned things weren’t going to be as easy as they thought they would be.” Meanwhile, Guy Lincoln had to teach his mum and stepfather a few things about life in the big smoke.

“They’re the kind of people who like to go on the tube and talk to people. No one does that, do they?” He was also concerned about the stress London might have on his stepdad’s health.

The boomers who come over say any downsides are far outweighed by the positives. Like most travellers, they’re prepared to make the best of things. “You know you are not here permanently,” says Jan Chalke. When it comes to finding things to do in London, boomers differ somewhat to twentysomethings, for whom clubbing is a quintessential part of the London experience. It’s not unheard of for fifty-something Kiwis to try E on their OE, but they’re more likely to spend their Saturday tracking down history in churches and stately homes. The genealogy trail has huge appeal for older Pakeha travellers looking for their colonial roots. Scotland’s People, which manages Scotland’s general register office, says New Zealanders are the fifth-largest group using its database. The majority of its customers are over 40. Reg Lawson spent three months tracing his family history. He’s gone back as far as 1690. “They’ve got unbelievable records here … for me, that’s been really worthwhile.” Jan Chalke says her original OE in the Swinging 60s was vastly different. “I appreciate different things now – I spend more time in galleries.” And globalisation has closed the gulf between Britain and New Zealand. “Fashion and attitudes were quite different then. My sister in Dunedin reads the Guardian online and often she’s heard something before I have.”

In 1967, you travelled to the UK by boat. “It was great, actually, like being at a party for six weeks.”

Had she done her OE in her twenties, Caroline Lawson says she would have been less keen to talk to locals, more career-focused and unlikely to have done so much travelling. “When you get to our age, if we run out of money, we run out of money.”

She says she’s a member of the “SKI” club – spending the kids’ inheritance. Her son supports her. “It’s absolutely no problem – I’m not expecting any money. I say, good on them, the more they can enjoy it, the better.”

The wartime generation spent life scrimping and saving. Baby-boomers have watched their thrifty parents age and die and have decided what’s important. “Things aren’t,” says Lawson. “Memories, friends and family are, and to be comfortable, to be warm and fed.”

However, she says, although many of her friends have talked about doing a trip, they won’t. “They’re too scared. You’re supposed to worry about your old age all the time and not think other people are going to look after you. But we’ll be all right, we don’t need a lot.

“Think of all the memories we’re going to have – and the hundreds of video films!”

With two generations of Kiwis over in the UK, it seems New Zealand’s “brain drain” is no longer limited to the young, but epitomises the restless – at any age. Is this a concern? Not really, says Ana Hensley. “We all like to leave, but we do come back again.” And then do it all again. Returning to New Zealand in your twenties or thirties no longer means settling down forever. Likewise, coming back to these shores for retirement doesn’t mean your travelling days are over. This is how the Chalkes view their return to New Zealand in November, when Neville starts collecting a pension. Both feel ready to go back, though Jan dreads the inevitable adjustment. “My ideal would be to be able to spend the next few years coming backwards and forwards.” Neville agrees. “I’ve always had the travel bug and could never imagine not travelling.”

Then & Now


o Bobbies and bowler hats, cups of tea and pork pies

o Free love and LSD, counter-culture psychedelia

o Carnaby St and King’s Rd o Zandra Rhodes and Biba

o Kiri Te Kanawa

o Transistor tunes: the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Rolf Harris

o Jesus Christ Superstar and Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap o Young Kiwis hand in notice at Earl’s Court pub to spend the summer tripping around Europe in a Bedford van. More adventurous types take the hippie trail via Iran and Afghanistan to Nepal. Shots of the Taj Mahal caught on Super 8 for home movie. Postcards of the Eiffel Tower sent back to Mum and Dad, who have never crossed Cook Strait.


o Bindis and burkhas, skinny lattes and tikka masala

o Speed-dating and loved-up clubbers, DJs and VJs.

o Old St and Brick Lane

o Stella McCartney and Topshop

o Hayley Westenra

o I-pod downloads: the Streets, Dizzee Rascal and the Darkness

o Bollywood Dreams and The Mousetrap

o New Zealanders in London take a couple of days out from their current IT contract for a city break in Reykjavik. Post digital holiday snaps on homepage. Text a message to the folks, currently doing a fly-drive across the US. Agree to go on tour with partner’s parents to Berlin and Moscow when they come over in the summer. With a bit of luck, they might even pay.

South Pole or North Pole?

Peter, the Auckland executive who compiled a list of the coolest places to go “when you’re 55 and before you get to 65” published in the Listener earlier this year, is off in a month to Barrow, the centre of Inuit culture. At 72 degrees north – there’s only flow ice between it and the North Pole – Peter reckons it’s a better polar region option than Antarctica. “What I love about travelling is not just pushing geographical boundaries but going off the beaten track to meet new cultures and so I want more than penguins.” He’s on track for a big OE in 2006 – “I save like mad, all my purchases are geared for airpoints” – and in the meantime is ticking places off his list. “About five years ago a friend died suddenly, early. He’d been talking about travelling. I thought, ‘I don’t want to drop dead without seeing this planet.’ When the crunch comes, it’s not the new carpet you’re going to remember when you’re 92, it’s the people you’ve met. Stuff it, I thought, I’m going to travel.” On the list for 2006 is Olduvai – “where it all began” – and Tibet: “you can’t get closer to heaven on Earth”. Getting a MIG 21 from Moscow to the edge of space is looking a bit expensive: $20,000 just for the flight. But with relations in London, he’s like a lot of New Zealanders who use England as a central base for travelling. Bilbao, the Guggenheim, was an excursion from London. He’s done Cuzco to Lake Titicaca, by train. He’s done Calca in the Urubamba. He’s been to the Hiroshima Peace Park, twice. “It always chokes me up.” He’s lived in Tehran. Wants to visit Tashkent, “the Islamic Florence”. What he loves most of all is linking up with locals. “In Chiangmai, I was invited to a hill tribes party, where this very old woman, over 100, was celebrating her great grandchild having come back from Hollywood to make a film. So here was this woman who lived in a dirt-floor hut above the village and she walks in with her totally Hollywood great grandchild. It’s an amazing world.”

copyright The Listener (NZ) 2004

Rachel Helyer Donaldson

About the author: Rachel Helyer Donaldson

New Zealander, Rachel Helyer Donaldson, is a London-based freelance journalist.