Skip to main content
Logo: Te Ara - The Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Print all pages now.


by  John Wilson

With a high proportion of foreign-born people, New Zealand in the 21st century is a multicultural nation. Asians, Pacific Islanders, Europeans and others from around the world have formed this new society, concentrated in Auckland. It’s a dramatic change for a country whose founding cultures were Māori and British, but this heritage remains a distinctive thread in an evolving story.

The people of New Zealand

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.

Where New Zealanders live

The concentration in the north

More than half of New Zealanders live in the northern half of the North Island. The Auckland urban area is home to more than one million people, which exceeds the population of the entire South Island. About 90% of Māori live in the North Island. Close to half the population in the Gisborne region is Māori, making it more Māori than any other region.

About one-quarter of the population live in the southern North Island, and one-quarter in the South Island.

The South Island

Canterbury dominates the South Island, with more than half the South Island’s population living there. The region with the smallest population in the country – around 30,000 – is the South Island’s West Coast.

Urban and rural

Three out of four New Zealanders live in urban areas of 10,000 people or more. Half are concentrated in just four cities – Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington and Christchurch. (Although in the 19th century Dunedin was the nation’s most populous town, it is no longer, in terms of population, one of the country’s ‘four main centres’.) Only one in seven people live in rural areas.

People living in rural areas or in the South Island are less likely to be recent immigrants. The rural population is typically European and Māori, rather than Asian or Pacific Island. In 2001 in South Canterbury’s Waimate district, 98% of the residents were of European ethnicity, and in Southland only one out of 15 people were not born in New Zealand.

The most notable contrasts are between Auckland and the rest of the country. Auckland has more Asians and Pacific Islanders, and more people born overseas – one in three in 2001.

Population mobility

About half the resident population aged five or over moves house at least once every five years. The northern half of the North Island has been growing faster than the South Island. This is the result of immigration and higher Māori and Pacific Island birth rates, rather than of internal migration. Migration within the South Island has favoured Christchurch.

Families and households

The family

In 1962 there were 66,000 births. By 2001 this had dropped to 56,221. During the same period, the number of women of childbearing age rose by 70%, but fewer of them were opting for motherhood. Those who did were having children later. In 2004 women aged 30–34 years had the highest birth rate.

Families are also getting smaller. The proportion of families with one child was 35.3% in 2001, and the proportion with three children dropped slightly, from 19.3% in 1962 to 17.7% in 2001.

Going it alone

New Zealand has the third highest rate of one-parent families in the world (after Canada and the United Kingdom). In 2001, 31% of families had a single parent, a proportion which has been slowly rising. They are distinctly poorer than two-parent families. Most single parents are women, and about half are in the 20–34 age group.

Marriage and divorce

Marriage is less popular than it was. The number of marriages (measured against the number of people who are not married) has declined from 45.5 per 1,000 in 1971 to 16.2 in 1992. It has remained at about this level.

Those New Zealanders who do marry are making the decision later than in the past. In 1971, nearly 33% of all brides were in their teens; by 1999 this proportion had fallen dramatically – to a mere 3%.

The divorce rate (the number of divorces per 1,000 existing marriages) rose from 7.4 in 1976 to 12.6 by 1999. In 2002 there were more than 10,000 divorces – about half the number of marriages.


In 2001 the average number of people in a household was well below three persons (in 1976 it was 3.5). Single-person households have increased to more than 300,000, about a quarter of the total. One reason for this is the longer life expectancy of women aged 65 and over who are living alone.

Crowded houses

People are considered to be living in crowded conditions when the number of people per bedroom rises above a certain level. In 2001, about 5% of all households were crowded. But over time, the problem has eased. In 1986, 72,924 households required more bedrooms; by 2001 the number had fallen to 65,088.

People in South Auckland are most likely to be living in crowded conditions, and Māori and Pacific Islanders are affected more than other groups.

Home ownership

One-third of New Zealand’s households rent rather than own their homes. Māori and Pacific Islanders are more likely to live in rented homes. Europeans are more likely to own their homes without a mortgage, but this is partly because the European population is older and has therefore had longer to pay off their mortgages. Overall, the percentage of New Zealanders owning their own homes declined from 73.8% of all privately occupied dwellings in 1991 to 67.8% in 2001.

Renting and owning

Home ownership is no longer the dream of many New Zealanders, although in the early 2000s it was relatively easy to obtain a mortgage. The number of dwellings that are rented rather than owned has risen dramatically since 1981.The home ownership rate has dropped from 74% in the early 1990s, but at 68% it is still high by OECD standards.

Housing types

Detached, single-family houses constitute about 80% of all private dwellings. But multi-unit dwellings are increasing in number.

The proportion of larger homes, with four or more bedrooms, has been slowly rising, indicating both increased wealth and greater inequalities in income. In 2001, 73.5% of all New Zealand houses had between one and three bedrooms, down from 80.5% in 1991. Between 1991 and 2001 the number of four- to six-bedroom houses increased from 16% to 20.4% of the total number of dwellings.

A small number of New Zealanders own second or holiday homes. A redistribution of wealth has resulted in the traditional ‘bach’ (or ‘crib’ in the southern South Island) – usually a small, basic house, often built by the owners – giving way to more substantial residences in some areas.

Sex and gender


The women’s movement and broader economic and social changes saw significant improvement in the economic situation of women from the 1980s onwards. By the early 2000s, women were much more prominent in the country’s public and economic life. In 2005 the prime minister, governor-general, chief justice, attorney general, speaker of the House of Representatives, and head of the country’s largest company were all women.

By law, men and women have to be paid equally for the same work. But despite the trend for more women to be employed and for women’s incomes to rise relative to men’s, in 2001 women had lower incomes than men (a median income of $14,500 for women and of $24,900 for men). The figures for the average weekly full-time wage and salary tell the same story: in 2002 it was $857 for men and $685 for women.

Women spend more time than men caring for other household members and doing unpaid work. In 2001, 57% of all people undertaking voluntary work outside the home were women, as were 60% of those looking after an ill or disabled household member.

Gay men and lesbians

The place of gay men and lesbians in New Zealand society began to change dramatically in the 1970s. In 1986 homosexual acts between consenting adult males were decriminalised. Discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation was made illegal by the 1993 Human Rights Act. Greater legal and social recognition has been accorded gay and lesbian relationships, with civil unions introduced in 2005 and same-sex marriage in 2013.

In the 2000s New Zealand had openly gay and transgender members of Parliament, and an openly gay minister of the Crown.

A growing acceptance

A major New Zealand film industry success in 2003 was Whale rider. This was adapted from a novel by Witi Ihimaera, an openly gay Māori writer. In 2004, when Ihimaera was recognised in the Queen’s Birthday honours, his sexual orientation was scarcely mentioned – an indication of the relaxed attitude of most New Zealanders towards homosexuality. Other homosexual men and women who made earlier contributions to New Zealand literature had to be more discreet.

Sex work

Prostitution has existed in New Zealand since the earliest days of European settlement, but was only made legal in 2003. Prior to this, brothels operated outside the law or hid behind the euphemism of ‘massage parlours’.

The health of the nation

The health of New Zealanders improved from the 1950s. Mortality rates for young and middle-aged people fell markedly. More recently, mortality rates fell among those who were of late working age or retired.

Life expectancy

Life expectancy for New Zealanders in 2000 was 76 years for men and 81 years for women. Māori life expectancy was lower – 68 for men and 71 for women.

Infant mortality

New Zealand’s infant mortality rate dropped dramatically through the second half of the 20th century, from 28 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1950 to 6 in 1998. However, the country’s standing internationally slipped.

Infant mortality remains higher for Māori than non-Māori, but between 1950 and 1998 the Māori rate declined from 70 to 8 per 1,000.

Health and lifestyle

Cancer has been the leading cause of death since 1993. Other major causes are heart and cerebrovascular disease.

One in five New Zealanders aged 15 or above were smokers in 2006. Restrictions on smoking in many public places were imposed in 1990 and extended to bars and restaurants in 2004. Māori smoking rates were more than twice those of non-Māori. More Māori (proportionally) died from heart disease, lung cancer and chronic respiratory diseases than non-Māori.

Stubbing it out

After voluntary organisations campaigned for years against smoking, the Ministry of Health took steps to curb the habit. All cigarette packets now carried blunt health warnings. Among them were, ‘Your smoking can harm others’, ‘Smoking causes lung cancer’, ‘Smoking is addictive’, and ‘Smoking kills’. More Māori than other New Zealanders smoked, and warnings were also given in Māori.


In the 1990s there was an alarming increase in the levels of meningococcal disease, and also a re-emergence of tuberculosis, especially among Pacific Islanders.

Road fatalities and suicide

Road deaths per 1,000 population peaked in the early 1970s. Road fatalities were especially high among young men aged between 15 and 24. But between 1989 (when the road death rate was 22.7 per 100,000 population) and 2002, New Zealand showed the biggest improvement of 30 countries (including Australia, the UK and the US): the rate almost halved.

Too young to die

Young men were disproportionately represented in the figures for suicide. There was an increase in youth suicides from the 1950s. A 2004 study showed that of every 100,000 New Zealanders between the ages of 15 and 19, 25.1 killed themselves; the figure for Australia was 9.6 and for England just 3.3. The statistics painted ‘a tragic picture of untreated mental problems among New Zealand’s youth’. 1

Health services

New Zealanders have access to health services through local medical centres. Doctors remained private practitioners even after the introduction of some free or subsidised health services. Part-charges were made for most prescription medicines. Many drugs were purchased in bulk by the government buying agency, Pharmac. This system helped keep the cost of drugs relatively low. Those on low incomes received subsidies for medical costs.

Public hospitals were funded by the central government. They provided emergency and advanced medical care free of charge. There were also private, fee-charging hospitals which were used mostly for non-urgent surgery.

At the time of the 1996–97 national health survey, 38% of New Zealanders had private health insurance, especially for non-urgent surgery.

    • Press, 8 June 2004. › Back


State schools

State primary, intermediate and secondary schools provide a free, compulsory and secular education for all young New Zealanders. Education is free from ages 5 to 19 and compulsory from ages 6 to 16. Many state schools, however, expect parents to pay fees to cover some school expenses that the state does not meet. State schools are co-educational at primary and intermediate levels. Most state secondary schools are also co-educational.

Since 1989, state schools have been governed by boards of trustees elected by parents.

Early childhood education

Although preschool education is not compulsory, many New Zealand children below the age of five attend kindergartens, playcentres or childcare centres. The playcentre movement involves parents and had an important social role in the last third of the 20th century.

Integrated schools

After the 1877 Education Act established a secular system of education, the Catholic Church built up a separate, parallel system of primary and secondary schools to maintain Catholic identity. These schools have now been integrated with the state system. The state pays most of the costs of running integrated schools, which are required to have open entry. However, they are allowed to retain their special character.

Private schools

There are also a number of private schools (mostly church-related). Some schools have chosen not to integrate with the state system and remain independent, fee-charging institutions. Some of the older schools have a socially élite character. Others have been established more recently, often by evangelical Christian churches. Private schools receive some state funding but are governed by independent boards.

Tertiary education

Almost all the country’s tertiary education institutions (polytechnics, colleges of education and universities) receive state funds but are governed by independent councils. Part-fees are now charged for most tertiary courses. A student loan scheme helps maintain the tradition of open access to higher education, which resulted in the past from low fees, a bursary system and from students being able to earn money during the long summer break.

Educational achievement

Most New Zealand children start school at five. More young people are now staying on later at school, though fewer Māori than non-Māori remain until they are 18.

The senior secondary school qualification is the National Certificate of Educational Achievement. One quarter of New Zealanders aged 15 or over have no educational qualification, while one in eight of the population holds a university degree.

Māori education

Most Māori are educated within the state system. An initiative of the 1980s was to set up kōhanga reo (preschool language ‘nests’) to help the Māori language survive. Some young Māori continue their education in kura kaupapa Māori (schools in which Māori language is used and the education is based on Māori culture and values). Like other state schools, they are free. Wānanga (institutions of higher learning) have also been established.

All New Zealand children enjoy equal access to the state system, and Māori who send their children to kōhanga reo and kura kaupapa do so by choice.

A different agenda

Māori preschools and language schools were established only in the 1980s. They were not the first educational institutions in which Māori were given a separate education. But the Native Schools, which lasted from the 19th century until after the Second World War, were set up for other reasons: not to ensure that the language and culture survived but to assimilate Māori into the majority society. Many stories are told of young pupils being punished for speaking Māori in the Native School classrooms.

Country schools

In rural New Zealand, the local country school was a focus of community life. The closing of such schools is partly the result of falling rolls as the rural population declines. Pupils are generally transferred to consolidated schools, where, it is claimed, a better education can be provided.

Religion and the churches


The prominence of churches in New Zealand’s cities, towns and countryside attests to the historical importance of the Christian religion in New Zealand.

In censuses, about half all New Zealanders give Christianity as their religion. The largest denominations are Anglican, Catholic and Presbyterian. In all regions except Auckland and Otago–Southland, Anglicans are the largest denomination.

Only a very small proportion of the relatively high number who identify themselves as Christian attend church regularly. Traditional denominations are losing adherents, but evangelical sects are growing. In many country districts, and also in towns and cities, interdenominational co-operation is now well established.

Generally, the Christian churches and their social organisations are less influential in New Zealand society than they were.

The Christian churches in society

In several Christian denominations, splits have developed between conservatives and liberals over such issues as the ordination of women and, more recently, homosexuality. Female clergy are now accepted in the major Protestant denominations.

In the wider society, the liberals in many Christian denominations have taken progressive stands on race, poverty, sexuality and divorce, which conservative elements in the same denominations have not supported.

Religious diversity

Recent immigrants have given other religions a stronger foothold. By 2010 there were over 50,000 Hindus and Buddhists in New Zealand, and over 35,000 Muslims.

Communities of practising Jews have been present since the 19th century, when synagogues were built in most cities and major towns.

Māori religions

Two indigenous Māori religions draw on elements of Christianity. The larger, Rātana, was founded by a 20th-century faith-healer and the other, Ringatū, by a 19th-century prophet.

In several Christian denominations, separate, parallel Māori structures have evolved to give expression to the distinctive features of Māori Christianity.

Modern society

New Zealand in the world

New Zealand is becoming more closely integrated into a global society. This is sometimes seen as Americanisation, and a departure from the country’s previous reliance on Britain for social and cultural models. Movies and television have been a major influence.

New Zealanders now rarely call England, Ireland or Scotland ‘home’, though this was common until the middle of the 20th century.

Overseas travel

Exposure to the outside world increased as overseas travel became more common. In 1950 there were 11 short-term departures per 1,000 population. By 2000 the number had leapt to 355. More than half the short-term departures from New Zealand were for Australia. Young people gaining their ‘OE’ (overseas experience) is an established feature of New Zealand life. London remains the major single destination for young New Zealanders travelling overseas, partly because they can work temporarily in Britain under various schemes.

Changing influences

By 2006 less than 7% of the population was British-born. Although television shows such as Coronation Street and The office are popular, British influences on popular culture – from movies and television to music and fashion – have been largely overtaken by American and, increasingly, global trends. Australian influences are not as great as might be expected, given that the two countries share colonial origins and similar histories.

As the population has become more diverse, Asians and Pacific Islanders have woven new threads into the culture. A large number of young New Zealanders travel and work overseas, many of them teaching English in countries like Japan, Korea and China. This created a channel of influences from those countries to New Zealand.


In the main urban areas, 97% of households have telephones. In rural areas the rate is well above 90%. In 2006, two-thirds of all private dwellings had access to the internet at home. Almost all children had access to computers at school.

Texting and talking

In 2001, 58% of households had at least one mobile phone, up from 22% in 1997–98, and by 2008 68% of 12–13 year olds had one. Following many other developed countries, New Zealand banned the use of mobile phones while driving in 2009.

The car and public transport

About 90% of all households have access to at least one motor vehicle. In 2001, two in three New Zealanders travelled to work by car. Only one in 20 walked or ran to work.

Only about 2% of journeys were made by bus, and even fewer by rail. For long-distance public transport, air travel has largely replaced trains, buses and ferries, although vestigial train services survive, and the Wellington–Picton ferry services between the two main islands are important.

Driving passion

New Zealanders love their cars. There are four million vehicles for five million people, making the ownership rate one of the world’s highest – New Zealand ranked eighth in 1997, with 560 cars per 1,000 people.


Between 1962 and 1995, the number of recorded offences per 1,000 population increased nearly fourfold.

The number of murders in New Zealand ranges between 40 and 65 from year to year. Convictions for violent offences are increasing, and most burglaries remain unsolved.

In 2011 there were almost 8,500 people in the country's 19 prisons. Over half of the prison population were Māori, and around 40% were below the age of 30.

Food, drink and dress

The Māori diet

Māori combined food-gathering with extensive cultivation of the kūmara – a sweet potato which reached Polynesia from South America. They pounded the roots of the bracken fern to produce a starchy paste, and treated the poisonous kernels of the karaka tree to make them edible.

Kai moana (food from the sea) was important in the traditional diet, and remains important to Māori today. Many species of fish were caught on lines or in nets, and shellfish – mussels, pāua, pūpū and pipi, among others – were gathered from the shore. Birds were snared in the native forests and eels and whitebait taken from inland or estuarine waters.

The hāngī

Māori still follow the traditional Polynesian practice of cooking for large numbers in a hāngī, an earth oven in which hot stones create steam to cook wrapped food. Non-Māori New Zealanders are increasingly familiar with its distinctive taste.

Not any moa

When the first East Polynesians reached New Zealand, the giant flightless moa bird was still abundant. Numerous archaeological sites attest to the importance of moa meat in the early Māori diet. Hunting contributed to the moa’s extinction long before Europeans arrived. Early Māori also ate sea mammals. Seals survived the depredations of European and American sealers in the late 18th and early 19th century, and are now increasing in numbers. But seal meat has not reappeared on New Zealand dining tables.

Traditional European cooking

The dominance of people from Britain among New Zealand’s immigrants was reflected in the country’s eating habits. Until about the 1950s, New Zealand cooking was based almost exclusively on Britain’s. From the 19th century on, the amount of meat eaten by New Zealanders was considered remarkable – on early sheep stations lamb chops were eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Changing tastes and products

Immigrant groups arriving from Europe after the Second World War introduced new flavours and products to a nation accustomed to plain English fare such as meat, potatoes, and a cup of tea. Some of these newcomers opened up cafés, restaurants and shops. People recognised that the New Zealand climate was more like the Mediterranean than the Northern European, and vegetables as eggplant, zucchini and garlic partly edged out the cabbage, cauliflower and carrots of traditional British cooking.

As travelling New Zealanders were exposed to a wide variety of cuisines, and immigrants arrived from Asia and other regions, cooking at home and in restaurants became cosmopolitan. By the early 2000s Kiwi chefs were winning awards around the globe and New Zealand’s restaurants offered world-class cuisine.

Along with a booming wine industry, there is a much wider variety of foodstuffs than in the past. Over 2,000 speciality food manufacturers produce cheese, oil, honey, ice cream and other gourmet items for local and overseas consumers.

Eating out

Restaurants and cafés abound. All the major world cuisines are on offer, including fusion and Pacific Rim cooking.

Hamburgers reached New Zealand in the late 1940s and early 1950s and were established in the cities by the mid-1960s. Pizzas followed a few years later. The first restaurant chain to open was Kentucky Fried Chicken (now KFC) in 1971. Pizza Hut (1974) and McDonald’s (1976) followed. But a 2001 survey found that the traditional British fish and chips were still the most popular fast food.


Beer was the staple alcoholic drink for most New Zealand males until the later 20th century. Overseas travel, new immigrant groups and the growth of the New Zealand wine industry increased the popularity of wine-drinking. Per capita wine consumption more than doubled between 1975 and 2003.

Wine is a significant export. New Zealand’s overseas reputation as a wine-making country was based initially on white wines, notably Marlborough sauvignon blanc. By the early 2000s pinot noir was emerging as a promising New Zealand wine. Many of New Zealand’s vineyards are tiny by international standards.

The first coffee bars were opened soon after the Second World War, but it was not until the 1990s that New Zealanders became serious coffee fans. Tea has lost the near monopoly it had enjoyed 50 years before.

Dress codes

Until the 1950s most people dressed up for social occasions. Men almost always wore hats outdoors and women wore dresses, hats and gloves, and carried handbags, on public occasions. Even as late as 2002, when the dress code had been relaxed for decades, Prime Minister Helen Clark was criticised for wearing trousers to a state banquet.

In the 2000s clothing was more sophisticated and urban. Younger fashion was dictated by global culture, but also reflected Māori and Pacific Island trends. A number of New Zealand designers have achieved international recognition.

How to cite this page: John Wilson, 'Society', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 June 2024)

Story by John Wilson, published 8 February 2005