Story: Population change

Page 3. Pākehā fertility and mortality

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High fertility

Since the 1880s the main factor contributing to population growth has been natural increase. Pākehā fertility was high in the 19th century. From the 1840s to the 1870s there were seven live births per woman – which meant almost nine for married women. These rates approached the upper limits of fertility.

High fertility rates were caused by most women marrying, and marrying at a young age (the early 20s), when biological fertility is at its peak. Contraception and abortion played a very minor role in fertility trends at this time, although women could avoid having children by remaining unmarried or abstaining from sex within marriage.

Weddings and babies

In the 19th century the fertility of Pākehā women in New Zealand was much higher than that of their British sisters and cousins. Women who remained in the British Isles, especially in Scotland and Ireland, were more likely to remain single or marry later, and therefore had lower fertility – about two births per woman fewer.

Declining fertility

Pākehā fertility rates started to drop in the late 1870s. In the last decades of the 19th century they resembled fertility patterns in Britain, and were low for an industrialised country. Fertility rates reached a low point during the economic depression of the 1930s, when they were just above replacement level (2.1 births per woman) for a few years. They remained low into the 1940s, on account of women marrying later or not at all.

Baby boom

Fertility rates picked up and increased rapidly after the Second World War. This ‘baby boom’ lasted until the early 1970s. Pākehā (still mainly European at the time) fertility was above four births per woman, which was the highest rate among developed countries. In a return to past patterns, most women married, and at young ages – the period can also be described as a ‘marriage boom’.

Baby bust

Pākehā fertility changed dramatically from the early 1970s, dropping substantially. New methods of contraception and sterilisation contributed to this change. The contraceptive pill was available from 1961, and other options included intrauterine devices (IUDs), a new generation of effective condoms, and sterilisation for women through tubal ligations. Couples quickly adopted these methods. Marriage was no longer the valve that controlled fertility. The outcome was a ‘baby bust’. Fertility rates have been at replacement level or below since the late 1970s.


Pākehā had high life expectancy by world standards in the 19th century. Pākehā women in New Zealand were the first group in the world to achieve a life expectancy of 55 (1870s) and then 60 (1901).

Living conditions in New Zealand were favourable compared to other countries.

  • Settlers had vegetable gardens which produced year-round, providing a reliable source of nutrients.
  • They lived in single dwellings set apart from one another, rather than tenements or apartments.
  • Low population densities diminished exposure to infections.

Good living conditions and high life expectancy contributed to high fertility rates and low death rates, and therefore population growth because women lived long enough to have large families. From the late 19th century causes of death for Pākehā changed from communicable diseases to non-communicable causes such as cancer. Pākehā (mainly European) retained relatively high life expectancy in the early 21st century.

How to cite this page:

Ian Pool and Natalie Jackson, 'Population change - Pākehā fertility and mortality', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 April 2024)

Story by Ian Pool and Natalie Jackson, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 23 Aug 2018 with assistance from Natalie Jackson