Pākehā age structures have changed over time and are influenced by fertility and migration patterns. When fertility is high and mortality declines (creating the beginning of a demographic transition), the proportion of children in the population is high. This occurred in the 19th century, though it was diluted by the immigration of working-age people (aged 15–64). The child population rose throughout the 19th century but went down during the 1930s economic depression because women were marrying later and having far fewer children, or not marrying at all.
Declining fertility rates led to concerns that there would be few children in New Zealand in the early 20th century. In St Patrick’s Cathedral in Auckland in 1912, a clergyman described childless women as ‘many whitened sepulchres parading the streets, adorning their bodies with all that money can buy, despising the authority of God and refusing to do what God has decreed.’ He said their childlessness led to ‘empty cradles [and] an absence of little ones from the schools built at great cost to the country.’ 1
When fertility starts to decline but there are still low numbers of older people, the proportion of working-age people increases. This pattern occurred in the Pākehā population in the first third of the 20th century. In contrast to the child population, which dropped, the working-age adult population grew during the depression, though more slowly than previously.
The child population grew and peaked during the post-Second World War baby boom, when past patterns of early marriage and high fertility recurred. As a result, the working-age group as a proportion of the total population dropped. This trend was reversed in the 1970s. Fertility rates dropped significantly and the large group of baby boomers grew into adulthood (and had fewer children). In 2006 New Zealand’s total population was almost double what it had been in 1956, but the number of children was almost the same.
The most significant age structure trend to emerge from the late 20th century was the increasing proportion of the population aged 65 and above. In 2009 the older population was 12% of the total population. It was projected to increase to 20% in 2031. By the 2020s there will be more people over 65 than under 15. This change is called structural ageing.
Pākehā dependency ratios (the support burden placed on the working-age population by younger and older people) were high in the 19th century despite large working-age immigrant populations, because fertility was high – there were a lot of children to care for. This changed later in the century as those children became adults and fertility rates declined. Total Pākehā dependency ratios were low from the late 19th century until the Second World War. During the baby boom the economy struggled to meet the demands of the large number of children (such as schools and paediatric care).
Dependency ratios dropped after this and remained relatively low in the 2000s. This will change as the population ages, though total dependency ratios will be lower in the 2050s than they were during the baby boom. Older people will influence dependency ratios more than children.
Changes in the population age structure and dependency have significant implications for the entire economy and society. This is because they affect the size of the labour force and amount of ‘human capital’, which in turn affects taxation income and household income and savings. During periods when New Zealand’s working-age population was high, and child and older populations relatively low, there have been windows of opportunity to make major investments in infrastructure and productive industries.
An ageing population potentially means there will be fewer people of working age paying income tax, more people accessing government-funded superannuation, and greater demand on health and social services. However, it is likely that older people will continue in paid employment for longer, which will offset these costs to some extent.