Story: Taupori Māori – Māori population change

Page 5. Beyond the demographic transition, 1970–21st century

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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 differ dramatically, reflecting historic differences in the timing and speed of their demographic transition. The Māori population is relatively youthful while the Pākehā population is much older. In 2017 the Māori median age (the age at which half of the population is older and half younger) was 24.4 years compared to 37 years for New Zealand overall. These age structure differences are important as they create distinctive needs, strengths and risks. For example, the youthfulness of the Māori population means that Māori are more likely to be exposed to incarceration and unemployment, both of which are most likely at younger ages (especially 20–29 years).

The different age structures also have implications for the support burden placed on the working age population. For Māori, youth dependency – the ratio of children to working age people – is most important. For Pākehā, it is the dependency of those aged 65 years and over.

Some demographers argue that the co-existence of a youthful Māori and rapidly ageing Pākehā population creates the potential for a Māori 'demographic dividend'. As large groups of Pākehā retire and are replaced by smaller groups, Māori will come to comprise a greater share of the working age population. With this comes an increased potential to contribute to the national economy. 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 raised 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 2013 Australian census 142,106 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. After Auckland, Brisbane has the second largest Māori population of all cities in Australasia.

Improved indicators

In the 21st century Māori wellbeing outcomes have improved across 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 2012–14 male life expectancy at birth was 80.3 years for non-Māori and 73.0 years for Māori. Female life expectancy at birth was 83.9 years for non-Māori and 77.2 years for Māori. Gender differences in life expectation are greater for Māori than non-Māori but are reducing over time.

Demographic transition

In 2018 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. The Māori population continues to grow through more births than deaths, although at a slower rate than in previous decades.

New challenges

The demography of Māori has been inextricably linked to colonialism and 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 an important feature 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, 1970–21st century', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 April 2024)

Story by Ian Pool and Tahu Kukutai, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 27 Sep 2018