Story: Society

Page 1. The people of New Zealand

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How many New Zealanders are there?

The population of New Zealand reached four million in April 2003, having doubled since 1952. It reached three million in 1973. It was continuing to grow from both natural increase and immigration. In the year to June 2004, 57,890 live births were registered. The population reached five million in March 2020.

In 2002 the gain from immigration was 38,198. However, migration flows vary from year to year; in the two years 1999–2000 the country lost more than 20,000 people because emigration exceeded immigration.

A diminishing flock

At one time there were about 20 sheep for each New Zealander. But while the human population has grown to five million, the number of sheep has dwindled. These days they outnumber people by about 6 to 1.

Age and gender

The population is ageing. This is the result of a surge in the birth rate after the Second World War (the baby boomer generation) and the influx of immigrants who arrived at that time and started families. In 1971 children under 15 formed 32% of the population; by 2001 this had dropped to 23%.

The Māori population is younger than the New Zealand population as a whole. Only 4% of Māori were aged 65 and over in 2006, compared to 12% overall. The Pacific Island population was also younger than the general population.

There are slightly more women than men. The excess of women is marked above the age of 65, partly because women live longer. The only region where there are more males is the sparsely populated West Coast of the South Island.


About one in seven New Zealanders (a total of 565,329 in 2006) identify as Māori. The proportion of those who have some Māori blood is expected to increase because Māori women are having more babies than European or Asian women.

Greater ethnic diversity

In 2006, 67% of New Zealand’s population was European in origin, largely because until the mid-1970s immigrants came overwhelmingly from Europe. More recent immigrants have come also from the Pacific Islands and Asia. By 2001 both these communities were about a quarter of a million strong.

The number of children of mixed ethnic parentage is increasing. In 2001, 18% of all children under 15 belonged to more than one ethnic group. More than half of the children of mixed ethnicity are European–Māori.

New Zealand is becoming less European, because European birth rates are lower than those of other ethnic groups.

The place of Māori

As the country’s original inhabitants, Māori are tangata whenua (the people of the land). Māori culture is a key element of the New Zealand identity. Māori differences from Pākehā are evident in social customs such as tangi (funerals).

Māori are disadvantaged compared to most other groups. They have lower life expectancy, living and housing standards, poorer health, and lower educational attainments. They share these characteristics, which have their roots in history, with Pacific Islanders.

Race relations

Until the mid-20th century the Māori population was largely rural. Between 1951 and 1971 the proportion of Māori living in cities rose from 20% to 58%. By 2001 Māori were as likely to be living in cities and larger towns as the rest of the population. When Māori and Pākehā began living in closer proximity, the belief that the country had ‘the best race relations in the world’ was tested. A race relations conciliator was first appointed in 1971 to help combat racial discrimination.

Pacific Islanders

In 2001 about half the 231,800 Pacific Islanders in New Zealand were Samoan. The next largest groups were Cook Island Māori (52,600) and Tongan (40,700). Many more Cook Island Māori, Niueans and Tokelauans live in New Zealand than on their home islands.

More than half the Pacific Islanders who live in New Zealand were born there. The population is young and concentrated in the Auckland region.


Between 1991 and 2001, the proportion of Asians in New Zealand almost doubled. By 2001, Asians made up 6.6% of the population. Chinese formed the largest group, followed by Indians. Within these two communities there are families that have been in the country for several generations.

In 2006 three-quarters of New Zealand’s Asians lived in the Auckland region. They have sometimes borne the brunt of anti-immigrant sentiment, exploited by some politicians. However, New Zealand society has generally welcomed the newcomers.


Most New Zealanders speak only English. But a revival of the Māori language, combined with increasing numbers of immigrants, meant that in the 2000s more than half a million New Zealanders spoke at least one other language.

In 2006 Māori was spoken by about 157,000 people. One in four Māori spoke the language, and conscious efforts had been made to keep it alive.

The most common language after English and Māori was Samoan, spoken by more than 80,000 people. Other languages with large numbers of speakers included Tongan, Hindi, French and the Chinese dialects of Cantonese and Mandarin.

How to cite this page:

John Wilson, 'Society - The people of New Zealand', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 April 2024)

Story by John Wilson, published 8 Feb 2005