Story: Taupori Māori – Māori population change

Page 5. Beyond the demographic transition, 1970–2000s

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1970s: a seminal decade

The 1970s were a seminal decade in Māori demographic history. After post-war improvements in mortality, rapidly falling fertility propelled Māori into the third stage of the demographic transition. Between 1972 and 1978 the Māori total fertility rate dropped from 5.1 children per woman to just 2.8. By the 1980s it had almost reached the Pākehā level. The Māori fertility decline was driven mainly by the widespread adoption of the contraceptive pill. Since the 1970s the major demographic issues for Māori have related to relative numbers of young, old and working-age people, rather than size per se, and have unfolded against the backdrop of growing ethnic diversification.

No more babies

Elspeth Kjestrup, a doctor in Ngāruawahia, remembers a young Māori mother arriving at her surgery with eight children in tow, in the early 1960s. The woman asked to go on the contraceptive pill. After Kjestrup explained that a possible side-effect of the pill was infertility, the woman grabbed her hand and exclaimed: ‘Dear Doctor, what do you think I bloody well want?!’1


The age structures of the Māori and Pākehā populations have long been starkly different – with implications for their dependency ratios (the support burden placed on the working-age population by dependent younger and older people). For Māori, youth dependency – the ratio of children to working-age people – was most important; for Pākehā, it was the dependency of those aged 65 years or more.

It is predicted that sometime after 2026, the proportion of Māori in the workforce will peak relative to those at dependent ages, which will have a positive economic effect for Māori (known as the ‘demographic dividend’). The taxes of Māori workers will also help support an expected increase in Pākehā retirees. Over time, as more Māori workers retire, new demands will be created, particularly in health care and housing. This scenario could be different if people continue working after age 65.

Aussie savers


Recognition that many Ngāi Tahu members live in Australia led the iwi to open an Australian account for its Whai Rawa savings scheme. The scheme matches the savings of adult members up to a certain annual threshold. Accumulated savings can then be used to fund tertiary education, first homes and retirement – in Australia or New Zealand.


The third migration

In the past being Māori was firmly connected to being born and bred in New Zealand. Since 1990 an international Māori diaspora has arisen. This is concentrated in Australia, where the promise of higher living standards lured many. In the 2006 Australian census almost 93,000 people recorded Māori ancestry, representing about one in six of all Māori in New Zealand and Australia combined. Most of the children identified as Māori in the Australian census were Australian-born.

Improved indicators

Government research in 2009 revealed improvements for Māori on a number of social and economic indicators. In some cases these changes were greater than for the total population, including life expectancy, tertiary education participation, employment and median hourly earnings. Even so, average outcomes for Māori tended to be poorer than for the total population. For example, in 2005–7 male life expectancy at birth was 79.0 years for non-Māori and 70.4 years for Māori. Female life expectancy at birth was 83.0 years for non-Māori and 75.1 years for Māori.

Demographic transition

In 2010 the Māori population had not yet entered the fourth stage of the demographic transition, when declines in fertility stop, mortality rates are near fertility levels, and natural increase rates are stationary.

New challenges

The demography of Māori has been inextricably linked to their historical disadvantage relative to the Pākehā majority, in terms of health, political authority and access to resources. Changing state policies (assimilation or biculturalism) and intermarriage with Pākehā have produced a great deal of cultural diversity and socio-economic inequality among Māori. Understanding the causes and manifestations of intra-Māori inequality will be one of the defining features of 21st-century Māori demography.

  1. ‘No bitter pill to swallow.’ Waikato Times, 20 April 2010, (last accessed 8 February 2011). Back
How to cite this page:

Ian Pool and Tahu Kukutai, 'Taupori Māori – Māori population change - Beyond the demographic transition, 1970–2000s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 July 2018)

Story by Ian Pool and Tahu Kukutai, published 5 May 2011