26 May 2015

What it's like to be young and unemployed in New Zealand

2:50 pm on 26 May 2015

Tens of thousands of young New Zealanders are out of work. We talk to three who have struggled to get their foot in the door of the job market.

Video produced by Ben Leonard and shot/edited by Carl Naus 

After months of failing to find work, Hala Nasr last year sunk into a bout of depression.

“I’m usually a really social person but I hermited. I’d lost that drive and I felt like: ‘What was the point?’”

Despite being educated and motivated, the 24-year-old is one of tens of thousands of young New Zealanders who are jobless.

According to Statistics NZ, the unemployment rate for 15-24 year olds is 15 per cent [PDF], more than double the overall rate of 5.8 per cent. This year, about 64,000 young people are out of work.

While rates have been trending down from a peak of 20 per cent following the Global Financial Crisis, young people are still struggling with the mental health challenges and government policies that makes getting a foot in the job market door seem impossible.

After high school, Hala went to university with high hopes of landing a job in development, but after finishing a double degree in 2012, her confidence began to erode.

“I couldn’t find meaningful work and I had no income for over seven months. I don’t know how I made it through.”

“After three or four months you start thinking, ‘maybe I should work retail'.”

The young Aucklander eventually landed an internship in New York and then a paid job as a project assistant for United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Cairo.

With newfound self-confidence, Hala headed back to New Zealand to be near her family. She took another shot at finding work in her field.

“I can easily say I applied for over 50 jobs when I got back,” she says.

“I was told that I didn’t have New Zealand experience; international experience wasn’t important. In one interview I was told I was overqualified for an admin role.”

Hala felt forced back into study, and even after finishing her honours last year, she found herself jobless and disheartened.

“I definitely went through depression because I had these achievements I was proud of, but achievements that weren’t satisfying to the employment market here.”

“It’s this battle within yourself that actually, I deserve to work and I deserve to enjoy the work that I’m doing.”

READ: What works and what doesn’t: how a job affects mental health  

Once again, Hala is back at university, this time on a scholarship doing a Master’s degree in development studies and working part-time at Shakti Women's Centre.

“Some days I really struggle when I think about what will happen after I finish my MA. The insecurity of the job search and the weight of my student loan terrifies me.”

“I know that I won’t find job opportunities here and I know that, unfortunately, I’m going to have to leave. My family is here and my partner is here so it’s really unnerving.”

Research into the effects of joblessness on young people paints a grim picture, and a New Zealand study shows long-term unemployed youth have a heightened risk of criminal offending, substance abuse, suicide and homelessness.

Mental health is also at risk and a UK study revealed at least 40 per cent of jobless young people faced mental illness as a direct result of unemployment.


Toby King says Toi Ora helped him to find a job he enjoys.

Toby King says Toi Ora helped him to find a job he enjoys. Photo: Unknown

Toby King knows exactly what it feels like to be out of work and facing serious mental health challenges.

The 25-year-old moved to Auckland from Timaru after high school and worked odd jobs around the city, but about four years ago, severe depression and anxiety took hold and led him to drug and alcohol addiction.

Toby left the job at the rental car company he was working at and went on a sickness benefit – now called Jobseekers Support - for about two years.

“I think it was definitely good for me to not be in work during that time. A big part of it for me was finding out who I am and putting things in place that make my life fulfilling.”

Soon Toby was ready to get back into work and leave behind his tight beneficiary budget. “When you’re on a benefit, they give you enough to pay your rent and eat. You don’t really get an extra spending money. You’re sort of stuck in that one place.”

Read: Waiting for the call: surviving unemployment

Despite wanting to land a job, Toby found it difficult to get motivated about work he wasn’t passionate about. The turning point was Toi Ora, an art organisation that offers a creative space for people in need of support for mental health and wellbeing.

Toi Ora gave Toby a place to make art, a type of therapy that he says was key in getting him back into the labour force and finding a job he enjoys.

“It just helped me get out of the house, talking with people and get a routine going. Art is also a good way to get out of your own head and put your emotions onto a page.”

Now, for first time in his life, Toby is doing a job he loves; working as a tattooing apprentice in Auckland.

“A big thing for me was finding something I’m passionate about, something that makes me care. For a long time I didn’t care what happened to myself or what happened to other people.”

While he’s still on the Jobseekers benefit, Toby looking forward to never going back to WINZ when he’s eventually employed as a tattoo artist.

“I definitely feel like I’m on track now. I have goals, I know what I want to be doing and have plans for the future as well.”


Anto Yeldezian says getting architecture work isn’t easy since, even on a good year.

Anto Yeldezian says getting architecture work isn’t easy since, even on a good year. Photo: Unknown

Last year, Anto Yeldezian felt on track as well after landing work as an architecture graduate. But less than three months into his new job, Anto was unemployed.

The 25-year-old says getting architecture work in the first place isn’t easy since, even on a good year, there are significantly more graduates than jobs available.

“I came out on a bad year,” he says.

After graduating with a Master’s degree, Anto worked in an Auckland restaurant. It’s there he met the boss of a small architecture firm who offered him a job.

“I was really good and lot better than what I expected. I was getting into it and I was really excited.”

His excitement turned into dread when 10 weeks in, he was told the firm didn’t have enough work to keep him on.

“To be frank, it was really shitty and I went through all the motions obviously until I convinced myself, well had to convince myself, that it wasn’t me.”

Under the 90-day trial period, an employer can dismiss a worker without the risk of the employee taking a personal grievance for unjustified dismissal.

I know two weeks of notice is the minimum by law, but actually having experienced it, it’s really not fair. It’s not enough time to find another job.

First introduced in 2009, the trial was only allowed to be used by employers with fewer than 20 staff, but in 2011, it was extended to all employers. In order to be valid, the trial period must be agreed to in writing.

The 90-day trial was introduced as a way to reduce the risk of hiring new employees and encourage businesses to give a shot to people who might have less experience.

Last year, a third of employers surveyed in a Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment report said the 90-day period led to them to hire people that they otherwise wouldn’t have.

But critics of the scheme point to findings that show 27 per cent of employers dismissed at least one employee during or at the end of the 90-day trial period.

Although Anto says his contract mentioned a 90-day “performance review”, there was no other suggestion that there was a chance of being let go after three months.

“I felt completely settled in. They had me photographed for their portfolio, I had my own accounts set up, and I had business cards coming.”

The architecture firm gave Anto the bad news in February, just two weeks before his 90 days were up.

“I know two weeks of notice is the minimum by law, but actually having experienced it, it’s really not fair. It’s not enough time to find another job.”

Anto started looking for work straight away, but since he was still working fulltime at the firm, he didn’t have enough time to land a new job before his last two weeks were up.

“Day after day I got more anxious because I could only send one or two emails out during lunch. I feel like two weeks notice 100 per cent infers unemployment,” says Anto.

For nearly two months after leaving the architecture firm, Anto was out of work.

“That’s a long time when you have rent and bills to pay. It would’ve been impossible if I wasn’t on the Jobseekers benefit,” he says.

“The morale following that was probably the most difficult part of all of it. Going into job hunting week after week, it just seemed dire.”

Anto says although the 90-day period may encourage employers to take on less experienced workers, it can leave employees in a lurch. 

“I think the notice period is what makes the 90-day trial unfair. If it was a one month notice, things could’ve been different.”

Anto is working again, this time for another architecture firm in the city. But tens of thousands of other young people end up dropping out off the job search and education altogether.


The road for young people who are not in education, employment or training (NEET) in particularly tough. They ranked lowest [PDF] amongst their peers in terms of how happy and confident they were in their lives.

Unlike the unemployment rate, NEET is a category that shows the numbers of youth who are disengaged from both work and education. Research shows NEETS are likely to have a lifetime of poorer outcomes in employment, happiness and health.

There’s also a big effect to the economy, and by looking at the cost of inactivity, NEETs in New Zealand are estimated to set the country back at least $1.8 billion over one to three years.

In March 2014, there were 81,500 young New Zealanders - about the population of Palmerston North – not in education, employment or training.

Young Maori not only have higher rates of unemployment than other ethnicities, they’re also more likely to be out of education or training, with a NEET rate of nearly 20 per cent.

Source: Statistics NZ.

Source: Statistics NZ. Photo: Graph: Mava Moayyed

University of Auckland associate professor Mānuka Hēnare says it’s a problem for the whole country.

“Every person who is working, whether they’re paid or unpaid, is creating value for society as a whole. So every young person who is unable to participate in any way at all means New Zealand society suffers.”

“If those young people are not able to express their capabilities then that becomes a dehumanising, demoralising process.”

Hēnare says resources needs to be put towards upskilling and educating young Maori in places like polytechnics and training institutes, otherwise a cycle of poverty and joblessness will continue.

“Unfortunately, too many young Maori do not have the skillset past being skilled labourers, and over the last 30 years, the need for skilled labourers in the New Zealand economy has been declining rather rapidly.”

Source: Statistics NZ.

Source: Statistics NZ. Photo: Mava Moayyed/The Wireless

“You’re likely to remain in poverty if you come from poverty, unless there are extraordinary interventions so people are able to go get themselves qualified and ready for the labour market,” he says.

An “extraordinary intervention” was exactly what set Hēnare on the path of higher education more than 50 years ago.

“I went to St Paul’s College in Ponsonby. I got to sixth from, largely because of my sporting prowess, I suspect.”

When he left school, Hēnare did exactly what the rest of his family did. “I become a labourer. I did what my cousins and other relatives were doing; they were all labourers so I just queued up.”

One day, while Hēnare was queuing up for casual labouring jobs in Auckland, the man running the office looked at him and asked: “Didn’t you do sixth from?”

“He said ‘well then what the hell are you doing?’ then arranged for me a job in the head office on Queen Street. That became my lucky break. One person, that’s all it took.”

Years later in his forties, Hēnare went to university, eventually finishing his PhD and becoming an associate professor in business.

“I think one of the key things was that I had developed a love of learning from my father and mother at a young age. They were labourers, but both voracious readers.”

“Developing the love of learning seems to me a requirement for success.”