Story: Population change

Page 1. Key population trends

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In the late 18th century the world was home to just under 1 billion people. By 2000 there were more than 6 billion. New Zealand was part of this population revolution and experienced a more extreme version. Its population increased from barely 100,000 people in 1769 (when British navigator James Cook first visited New Zealand) to over 4 million in the 2000s – a 40-fold increase.

This is because European settlement of New Zealand started at a time when a period of unprecedented intercontinental migration throughout the world was gathering pace, and also because New Zealand has experienced periods of high fertility.

Demographic transitions

The classic model of demographic change starts with a movement from relatively high death rates and birth rates (and therefore low rates of natural increase) to a phase where fertility remains high but mortality declines, accelerating rates of natural population increase. In the next phase fertility also declines, causing growth to slow. The final stage, which is found in most developed countries, is for low birth and death rates, leading to low or natural increase or even a decrease. Pākehā followed this model from the 19th century. For Māori this demographic transition was delayed, but accelerated faster than the Pākehā model once it started.

Population growth

Migration, fertility and mortality all influence population growth.

Migration was the main cause of population growth from the 1850s to the 1870s. After this, natural increase (births minus deaths) became the main cause of growth.

Pākehā fertility was very high through most of the 19th century but dropped in the last few decades of that century. It reached a low point during the 1930s economic depression, when it hovered just above replacement level (which is 2.1 births per woman). Fertility increased during the post-Second World War ‘baby boom’ (from the mid-1940s to the early 1970s), when there were about four births per woman. Fertility dropped again after the baby boom because a wider range of contraceptive methods became available, enabling women to control their fertility. Fertility has remained at or just below replacement level since the late 1970s.

Pākehā life expectancy was high by world standards in the 19th century because of favourable living conditions. High life expectancy continued into the 21st century, though the main causes of death have changed over time.

Increasing life expectancy and low fertility rates are expected to continue in the 21st century. The population will continue to grow but not as fast as in previous centuries. In the 2000s New Zealand’s fertility rates were high compared to other OECD countries. They were fifth-highest in 2006 at 2.01 births per woman, well above the OECD average of 1.65.

Changes in population structure

Population structure refers to categories within a population. Important elements include age structure, dependency (the support burden placed on the working-age population by younger and older people), labour-force composition and geographical distribution.

Among Pākehā, the working-age population (15–64) has always been the largest age category, but the proportion of children and older people (65 and over) has varied. The child population was high in the late 19th century and in the wake of the post-Second World War baby boom. The older population grew significantly in the late 20th century and is expected to be larger than the child population by the 2020s. Changing age structures impact on dependency ratios.

A majority of New Zealanders were urban by the early 20th century. This change from rural to urban was linked to changes in employment. The secondary (manufacturing) and tertiary (service) sectors, which are predominantly urban-based, both employed more people than the primary sector (farming, forestry and mining, mainly rurally based) by the 1920s.

Māori population change

Māori were the largest ethnic group until the 1860s, but the Māori population had already been declining for a number of decades, mainly because of exposure to new infectious diseases. The Māori population grew again from the later 1890s and has maintained an upward trend. Population growth occurred because of improvements in mortality rates and a consistent and relatively high fertility rate (compared to Pākehā).

Until the 1980s the Māori child population was close in size to the working-age population. Since then it has continued to grow, but the working-age population has grown even faster – although the size difference between the two groups is smaller than for Pākehā. The older proportion of the Māori population is small compared to total population figures, but it will grow significantly in the 21st century.

Māori have been predominantly urban dwellers since the 1960s, which is associated with a move into the secondary and tertiary employment sectors.

How to cite this page:

Ian Pool, 'Population change - Key population trends', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 January 2018)

Story by Ian Pool, published 5 May 2011