New Zealand was founded as a farming nation, but by the 1916 census more people lived in urban than rural areas. In the 20th century the population was not only urban but metropolitan – by 1916 much of the urban population lived in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.
The South Island was home to most of the population briefly, from about 1870 to 1900, but most people have lived in the North Island since then. The Auckland region’s demographic primacy has become increasingly entrenched. In 2013 one-third of the country’s total population lived in Auckland. This reflects a shift northwards of physical and financial assets as well as people.
The North and South islands are ancient rivals and a sense of competition has also extended to the regions within. In 1863 the Daily Southern Cross explained that ‘Auckland is jealous of Wellington, a feeling the latter fully reciprocates, and between the latter province and Hawkes’ Bay the same foolish rivalry exists. In the Middle [South] Island we have Nelson and Marlborough, Otago and Southland, all indulging in a similar contention. Canterbury wraps itself in its solid respectability, and if it does not contend with the other provinces it holds itself aloof.’1
Geographic distribution of the population is driven by changes in labour-force structures. The growth in urbanisation resulted from labour-force transformation which saw Pākehā workers increasingly employed in the secondary (mainly manufacturing) and tertiary (mainly services) sectors, which are predominantly urban-based. These sectors were both larger than the primary sector (farming, fishing, forestry and mining) in terms of employment by the 1920s. The only time the Pākehā primary sector has had more than 50% of employees was the gold-rush period of the 1850s and 1860s.
The period of economic restructuring and recession in the 1980s and early 1990s led to the decline of the primary and secondary employment sectors. The tertiary sector continued to grow. In 2013, 7% of the working population was employed in the primary sector, 11% in the secondary sector and 82% in the tertiary sector. Employment in the tertiary subsectors of finance, insurance and real estate exceeded that in manufacturing.