Kōrero: Occupational structure

Whārangi 2. Occupational change since 1840

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero


During New Zealand’s colonial period most income-earning jobs came from the land and natural resources such as gold. Very early jobs included whaling and sealing. Occupations such as storekeeper and farmer emerged in the earliest days of settlement, among both European settlers and the Māori population. The most common occupation in the 1867 census was mining – reflecting the gold rushes of the time. Skilled professionals such as surveyors and clerks were scarce, and servants far outnumbered nurses.

Men filled most of the paid jobs, and women who migrated to New Zealand came either as wives, potential wives, or as a source of domestic labour.


In the 1896 census the two most common occupations were farmer and farm labourer, jobs that still exist in the 2000s. The third largest occupational group was domestic servant, and domestic service was the single largest employment category for women from the 1880s to the 1930s. After that the numbers of paid servants declined rapidly, virtually disappearing after the Second World War.

The 1896 census listed occupations that either do not exist in the 2000s, or have changed into another form. Navvies, who were ditch diggers, and ballastmen, who laid railway tracks, would have all become labourers; while the kauri-gum industry has disappeared. Although in the 2000s there are still people who could be classified as ‘Independent Means, Lady, Gentleman’, this is no longer an official occupation.


As the pioneering economy gave way to a more modern and comfortable society, occupations based on extractive industries such as forestry and mining became much less common, and industries employing clerks, shop assistants, teachers and nurses grew. New technology introduced occupations such as typist and stenographer (shorthand typist). Local manufacture of shoes, clothing and furniture had already begun to decline, but the predominantly female occupations of tailoress, dressmaker and milliner (hat maker) were still some of the most common.

Empty stations

Tracing the changes in some very specific occupations shows how the world of work is changing. In 1982, when the Railways Department became a corporation, it had 21,834 workers. By 2001 the workforce of its successor, Tranz Rail, had declined to 4,100. This dramatically reduced a number of specialist occupations. For example, in 1986 there were 93 railway station masters and by 2006 the number had declined to 15.


Farming remained the largest employing industry after the Second World War, but occupations in the service industries continued to expand. Teaching became the fourth most common occupation (up from 10th in 1896). The enormous increase in mechanisation meant there were now twice as many motor vehicle mechanics as domestic servants. Most significant of all was the great increase in manufacturing jobs such as storeman, packer and freezing works employee, and also in public service occupations. State services such as health, education, the Post Office, railways and ‘general government administration’ were among the largest employers in the country.


In the 2006 census there were several new jobs in the top 30: chief executive or managing director, policy and planning manager, chef and waiter – these last two reflecting the growth in eating out. The increase in the number of working women, and the associated rise in the number of children cared for outside of the home, saw the occupation of early childhood teacher enter the top 30.

Less common occupations

Alongside the larger occupational groups, the emergence of smaller occupations also showed something about how society was changing. New occupations in the 2006 classification included: snow-sport instructor (72 people), sex worker or escort (117), civil celebrant (111), footballer (204), family and marriage counsellor (192), web developer (993) and call- or contact-centre manager (525).

Some of these, such as web developer, were new jobs. Others, like sex worker, were very old ones. The inclusion of sex workers reflected a change in the law legalising this occupation. However, it remained an occupation that some people preferred not to acknowledge, so the numbers recorded as working in this area are likely to be much lower than the real figures. Another factor affecting numbers recorded is that information generally refers to people's main job, while occupations such as sex worker may often be secondary.

Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Paul Callister and Robert Didham, 'Occupational structure - Occupational change since 1840', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/occupational-structure/page-2 (accessed 14 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Paul Callister and Robert Didham, i tāngia i te 11 Mar 2010