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Population change

by Ian Pool and Natalie Jackson

During the post-Second World War baby boom New Zealand had the highest fertility rate among developed countries. From the 1970s the boom gave way to low fertility rates – they were just below replacement level in the early 21st century. Life expectancy was high, and the number of older people was growing.

Key population trends

In the late 18th century the world was home to just under one billion people. By 2013 there were more than seven billion. New Zealand experienced an extreme version of this growth. Its population increased from barely 100,000 (Māori) people in 1769 (when British navigator James Cook first visited New Zealand) to over four million by 2013 – a 40-fold increase. The population reached five million in 2020.

This greater rate of increase for New Zealand has occurred because European settlement of New Zealand started at a time when a period of unprecedented intercontinental migration throughout the world was gathering pace, and also because New Zealand has experienced periods of high fertility.

Ethnic composition

Colonisation not only altered the size of New Zealand's population but also its ethnic composition, from predominantly Māori until 1860 to predominantly Pākehā. Today's multi-ethnic composition is a relatively recent development. In 1991 only 8% of the population was neither Māori or European. By 2013 that had increased to 20%. In the 2013 census 75% of the population claimed European ethnicity, 16% Māori, 12% Asian, 8% Pasifika and 1% Middle Eastern/Latin American/African.

The composition of New Zealand's population has changed as a result of 'demographic transition'.

Demographic transitions

The classic model of demographic change starts with a movement from relatively high death rates and birth rates (and therefore low rates of natural increase) to a phase where fertility remains high but mortality declines, accelerating rates of natural population increase. In the next phase fertility also declines, causing growth to slow. The final stage, which is found in most developed countries, is for low birth and death rates, leading to low or natural increase or even natural decrease. Pākehā followed this model from the 19th century. For Māori this demographic transition was delayed until the second quarter of the 20th century, but accelerated faster than the Pākehā model once it started.

Population growth

Migration, fertility and mortality all influence population growth.

Migration was the main cause of population growth from the 1850s to the 1870s. After this, natural increase (births minus deaths) became the main cause of growth in most years. From 2013 record migration gains led to migration once again becoming the main source of growth, but this may be temporary.

Contribution to growth has differed by ethnicity. Pākehā fertility was very high through most of the 19th century but dropped in the last few decades of that century. It reached a low point during the 1930s economic depression, when it hovered just above replacement level (which is 2.1 births per woman). Fertility increased during the post-Second World War ‘baby boom’ (from the mid-1940s to the early 1970s), when there were about four births per woman. Fertility dropped again after the baby boom because a wider range of contraceptive methods became available, enabling women to control their fertility. Fertility has remained at or just below replacement level since the late 1970s. In 2013 women of European origin had an average of 1.92 births per woman and these births accounted for just over 60% of all births.

Pākehā life expectancy was high by world standards in the 19th century because of favourable living conditions. High life expectancy continued into the 21st century, though the main causes of death have changed over time.

Increasing life expectancy and low fertility rates are expected to continue in the 21st century. The population will continue to grow but not as fast as in previous centuries. New Zealand’s total fertility rates remain high compared to other OECD countries. In 2014 they were sixth-highest at 1.9 births per woman, well above the OECD average of 1.7.

Changes in population structure

Population structure refers to categories within a population. Important elements include age structure, dependency (the notional support burden placed on the working-age population by younger and older people), labour-force composition and geographical distribution.

Among Pākehā, the working-age population (15–64) has always been the largest age category, but the proportion of children and older people (65 and over) has varied. The child population was high in the late 19th century and in the wake of the post-Second World War baby boom. The older population grew significantly in the late 20th century and is expected to be larger than the child population by the 2020s. Changing age structures impact on dependency ratios.

A majority of New Zealanders were urban by the early 20th century. This change from rural to urban was linked to changes in employment. The secondary (manufacturing) and tertiary (service) sectors, which are predominantly urban-based, both employed more people than the primary sector (farming, forestry and mining, mainly rurally based) by the 1920s.

Māori population change

Māori were the largest ethnic group until the 1860s, but the Māori population had already been declining for a number of decades, mainly because of exposure to new infectious diseases with the arrival of Europeans. The Māori population grew again from the late 1890s and has maintained an upward trend. Population growth occurred because of improvements in mortality rates and a consistent and relatively high fertility rate (compared to Pākehā).

Until the 1980s the Māori child population was close in size to the working-age population. Since then it has continued to grow, but the working-age population has grown even faster – although the size difference between the two groups is smaller than for those of European descent. The older proportion of the Māori population is small compared to the European population, but it will grow significantly in the 21st century as life expectancy increases and fertility rates continue to fall.

In 2013 the Māori fertility rate was 2.49 births per woman and Māori births accounted for 22% of all births. In 2014 life expectancy was 73 years for Māori males and 77.1 years for Māori females. Life expectancy for Māori trails that of non-Māori by 7.3 years for males and 6.8 years for females, although these discrepancies have halved since the mid-20th century.

Māori have been predominantly urban dwellers since the 1960s, which is associated with a move into the secondary and tertiary employment sectors.

Other ethnic groups

Although New Zealand has long been a country of migration, most migrants were of European origin until the late 20th century. As recently as 1991 only 8% of the New Zealand population was not of European or Māori origin. This situation has changed dramatically since. In 2013 almost 900,000 New Zealanders were of Asian or Pasifika descent, up from under 300,000 at the 1991 census. A further 53,000 were of Middle Eastern, Latin American or African origin, up from less than 20,000 in 1996.

Since the 1990s these three ethnic groups have grown at a faster rate than either European or Māori. Between 1996 and 2013 Asian people accounted for almost half of all growth, more than European (33%), Māori (17%), Pasifika (16%) and Middle Eastern/Latin American/African (5%).

The majority of Asian, Pasifika and Middle Eastern/Latin American/African New Zealanders are more likely to live in a city than European or Māori. In 2013, 90% of Asian peoples and 87% of Pasifika and Middle Eastern/Latin American/African peoples lived in a city compared with Europeans (63%) and Māori (53%).

Births data suggest that the total fertility rates of Pasifika and Asian women in 2013 were 2.73 and 1.69 births per woman respectively. Pasifika births accounted for 12% of all births, and Asian births 15%. Life expectancy statistics are available for Pasifika only. In 2013 life expectancy at birth was 74.5 years for Pasifika males and 78.7 years for Pasifika females.


Critical period

Migration was the main factor that fuelled New Zealand’s population growth from the 1850s to the 1870s. 29% of the total net migration gains (people coming in minus people leaving) between 1840 and 2000 happened between 1861 and 1880. The two most important causal factors were the gold rush of the 1860s and the government-assisted immigration scheme of the 1870s.

Pākehā had replaced Māori as the largest ethnic group by 1860. This change was rapidly reinforced by high migration inflows as well as high rates of natural increase. Early migrants tended to be men of working age, which initially created a sex imbalance.

Later migration

After the 1870s migration was overtaken by natural increase (births minus deaths) as the main factor in population growth. However, it remained a relevant factor and has spiked up and down. Further significant net migration gains occurred in 1900–15, the 1920s, 1950–65, 1970–75, 1990–95, 2000–5 and 2013–18 (the latter at historically high levels). Notable net migration losses occurred in the late 1880s, the early 1930s, 1975–80, 1985–90, 1995–2000 and 2011–12. These were mainly associated with economic depressions or downturns. Some losses were caused by people leaving in significant numbers (the 1880s) while others were the result of relatively few people immigrating to New Zealand (1930s). The recent record gains reflect both fewer people leaving and more people arriving, among them an increase in New Zealanders returning from overseas, and historically high levels of people on student and work visas.

Asian immigration

The first Chinese immigrants came to New Zealand during the 1860s gold rush. The first group (12 men) arrived in Otago in 1866, and by 1869 over 2,000 Chinese men had settled there. Very few Chinese women came to New Zealand in that period – in 1881 there were nine Chinese women and 4,995 Chinese men. The wives of those men who were married remained in China.

New migrant groups

Migration was a much less significant cause of population growth in the late 20th century than the 19th – contrasting with the popular perception that New Zealand was becoming a society of migrants. However, there were many more Asian and Pacific immigrants than in the past. Both migrant groups have mainly settled in the Auckland region, which makes them more visible than if the populations were more dispersed. Increases in the Pacific population have been caused by migration reinforced by high rates of natural increase. Migration mainly accounts for the increasing Asian population – Asian fertility rates are low. Historically high levels of migration between 2013 and 2018 have resulted in migration again being the primary cause of New Zealand's growth. Arrivals from Asia dominate inward flows (45% for the 2017–18 period).

Pākehā fertility and mortality

High fertility

Since the 1880s the main factor contributing to population growth has been natural increase. Pākehā fertility was high in the 19th century. From the 1840s to the 1870s there were seven live births per woman – which meant almost nine for married women. These rates approached the upper limits of fertility.

High fertility rates were caused by most women marrying, and marrying at a young age (the early 20s), when biological fertility is at its peak. Contraception and abortion played a very minor role in fertility trends at this time, although women could avoid having children by remaining unmarried or abstaining from sex within marriage.

Weddings and babies

In the 19th century the fertility of Pākehā women in New Zealand was much higher than that of their British sisters and cousins. Women who remained in the British Isles, especially in Scotland and Ireland, were more likely to remain single or marry later, and therefore had lower fertility – about two births per woman fewer.

Declining fertility

Pākehā fertility rates started to drop in the late 1870s. In the last decades of the 19th century they resembled fertility patterns in Britain, and were low for an industrialised country. Fertility rates reached a low point during the economic depression of the 1930s, when they were just above replacement level (2.1 births per woman) for a few years. They remained low into the 1940s, on account of women marrying later or not at all.

Baby boom

Fertility rates picked up and increased rapidly after the Second World War. This ‘baby boom’ lasted until the early 1970s. Pākehā (still mainly European at the time) fertility was above four births per woman, which was the highest rate among developed countries. In a return to past patterns, most women married, and at young ages – the period can also be described as a ‘marriage boom’.

Baby bust

Pākehā fertility changed dramatically from the early 1970s, dropping substantially. New methods of contraception and sterilisation contributed to this change. The contraceptive pill was available from 1961, and other options included intrauterine devices (IUDs), a new generation of effective condoms, and sterilisation for women through tubal ligations. Couples quickly adopted these methods. Marriage was no longer the valve that controlled fertility. The outcome was a ‘baby bust’. Fertility rates have been at replacement level or below since the late 1970s.


Pākehā had high life expectancy by world standards in the 19th century. Pākehā women in New Zealand were the first group in the world to achieve a life expectancy of 55 (1870s) and then 60 (1901).

Living conditions in New Zealand were favourable compared to other countries.

  • Settlers had vegetable gardens which produced year-round, providing a reliable source of nutrients.
  • They lived in single dwellings set apart from one another, rather than tenements or apartments.
  • Low population densities diminished exposure to infections.

Good living conditions and high life expectancy contributed to high fertility rates and low death rates, and therefore population growth because women lived long enough to have large families. From the late 19th century causes of death for Pākehā changed from communicable diseases to non-communicable causes such as cancer. Pākehā (mainly European) retained relatively high life expectancy in the early 21st century.

Pākehā age structure and dependency

Age structure

Pākehā age structures have changed over time and are influenced by fertility, mortality 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.

Empty cradles

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 as a proportion, 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 2013 New Zealand’s total population was almost double what it had been in 1956, but the number of children was almost the same.

Ageing population

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 2017 the older population accounted for just over 15% of the total population. It is 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 notional 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, although children aged 0–14 years still accounted for one-third of the population at the beginning of the 20th century. Total 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). Children aged 0–14 years continued to account for between one-third and one-quarter of the population until the 1980s.

Dependency ratios dropped after this and remain relatively low in the early 21st century. This will change as the population ages, though total dependency ratios will still be lower in the 2050s than they were during the baby boom. From the 2020s 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.

These potential gains have been termed 'demographic dividends'. They can occur as societies transition from youthful, fast-growing structures to older, slower growing structures. One such dividend has the potential to arise when the proportion of the population at the main working ages reaches its maximum, and the proportion at older and younger is at its minimum. While the total New Zealand population passed through this historical moment around 2011, Māori will have this potential for several more decades due to the youthful age structure of its population. There is even potential for a 'collateral' dividend as the proportion of younger Māori labour market entrants increases compared to that of the structurally older European population, which has greater proportions approaching retirement.

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.

    • Evening Post, 14 November 1912, p. 3. Back

Pākehā geographic distribution and labour force

Geographic distribution

New Zealand was founded as a farming nation, but by the 1916 census more people lived in urban than rural areas. In the 20th century the population was not only urban but metropolitan – by 1916 much of the urban population lived in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

The South Island was home to most of the population briefly, from about 1870 to 1900, but most people have lived in the North Island since then. The Auckland region’s demographic primacy has become increasingly entrenched. In 2013 one-third of the country’s total population lived in Auckland. This reflects a shift northwards of physical and financial assets as well as people.

Competitive spirit

The North and South islands are ancient rivals and a sense of competition has also extended to the regions within. In 1863 the Daily Southern Cross explained that ‘Auckland is jealous of Wellington, a feeling the latter fully reciprocates, and between the latter province and Hawkes’ Bay the same foolish rivalry exists. In the Middle [South] Island we have Nelson and Marlborough, Otago and Southland, all indulging in a similar contention. Canterbury wraps itself in its solid respectability, and if it does not contend with the other provinces it holds itself aloof.’1

Labour force

Geographic distribution of the population is driven by changes in labour-force structures. The growth in urbanisation resulted from labour-force transformation which saw Pākehā workers increasingly employed in the secondary (mainly manufacturing) and tertiary (mainly services) sectors, which are predominantly urban-based. These sectors were both larger than the primary sector (farming, fishing, forestry and mining) in terms of employment by the 1920s. The only time the Pākehā primary sector has had more than 50% of employees was the gold-rush period of the 1850s and 1860s.

The period of economic restructuring and recession in the 1980s and early 1990s led to the decline of the primary and secondary employment sectors. The tertiary sector continued to grow. In 2013, 7% of the working population was employed in the primary sector, 11% in the secondary sector and 82% in the tertiary sector. Employment in the tertiary subsectors of finance, insurance and real estate exceeded that in manufacturing.

    • Daily Southern Cross, 16 March 1863, p. 4. Back

Māori population change

There were barely 100,000 Māori in New Zealand when James Cook first visited in 1769, and demographers estimate the population to have been 70,000 to 90,000 when the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840. It is likely that the Māori population had continued to grow after 1769, but that growth rates declined in the early 19th century because Māori were exposed to new diseases to which they had no immunity (like measles, influenza and tuberculosis), introduced by Pākehā settlers. The musket wars of the 1820s and 1830s added to rising mortality rates, but not to the extent that some commentators have suggested.


Very high levels of mortality meant that the Māori population declined for most of the 19th century. The most rapid decrease occurred between 1840 and 1860, when the Māori population dropped by up to 30%. Immunity to communicable diseases gradually improved and the rate of decline slowed from the late 1870s. In 1896 the population reached its lowest figure at around 42,000.

By the later 1890s, however, the population was on the increase, as had been predicted by Māori politician Sir James Carroll. Public health programmes aimed at Māori had a favourable impact in the early 20th century, as did the introduction of universal free health care from 1941. By the second half of the 20th century Māori life expectancy had improved significantly, from 28 years at birth for males and 25 for females in 1891 to 61 for males and 65 for females in 1966. The period of life at which the largest proportion of the population died changed from childhood (which was the case in the 1890s) to later middle and old ages. The main causes of death changed from communicable diseases to non-communicable diseases such as heart disease and cancer. In 2014 life expectancy was 73 years for Māori males and 77.1 years for Māori females.

Fatal impact?

The idea that Māori were 'dying out' was a commonly held belief in New Zealand right up until the 1930s, despite the fact that the Māori population had been increasing for a generation by then. This belief was reflected in New Zealand literature. Arthur Adams’s 1899 poem ‘Maoriland’ states, ‘[T]hough the skies are fair above her / Newer nations white press onward / Her brown warriors’ fight is over / One by one they yield their place, Peace-slain chieftains of her race’.1


Māori fertility rates declined from 1769, probably because of factors such as the introduction of venereal diseases by Pākehā, and exposure to other diseases and malnutrition, which affect the capacity to conceive. Fertility rates increased in the mid-19th century and rose from 4.5 births per woman in 1844 to 6.1 in 1886. They remained around this level into the second half of the 20th century.

Unlike the Pākehā fertility rate, which consistently declined from the late 19th century and remained low into the 1940s, the Māori rate hovered between 5.9 and 6.9 births per woman between 1901 and 1961. After this the rate steadily dropped, particularly from the early 1970s when it exhibited one of the most rapid falls in the world. Like Pākehā rates, Māori fertility rates reached a low point in the mid-1980s (2.14) but, unlike Pākehā, the rate has never fallen below replacement level. The Māori rate increased slightly at the end of the 20th century but this was partly due to a change in the Māori births were calculated. In 2017 the Māori fertility rate was 2.39.

Māori women give birth at a younger age than European women. In 2017 68% of Māori births occurred to mothers aged 29 or under, compared with European (46%), Asian (37%) and Pasifika (64%) mothers.

Age structure and dependency

The decline in mortality, and consistent and relatively high fertility rates in the 20th century, meant that the Māori child population was high. It reached 50% of the total Māori population in the 1960s. Those of working age (15–64) increased significantly after the birth rate declined in the 1960s and 1970s. However, unlike the Pākehā child population, the Māori child population did not fall but continued to grow. From the 1980s to the early 21st century, the difference in size between the two age groups was less marked for Māori than for European.

Older Māori (65 and over) remain proportionally small in the early 21st century. It is projected that older Māori will constitute 10% of the Māori population in 2031, when all older people will make up 22% of the total population. However, the numbers of older Māori will grow 7.6 times between 1991 and 2031, compared to 2.7 times for the total older population.

Māori dependency ratios have exceeded those for Pākehā (except in the 1870s) because of a relatively high and consistent birth rate. The Māori ratio dropped from the 1960s and in the early 21st century was close to the non-Māori rate at just over 60%.

In 2013, 52% of the Māori population was aged 24 and below, compared to 33% of the European population, 38% of the Asian population and 55% of the Pasifika population.


From the 1970s Māori migration to Australia became a significant trend. In 2001, 73,000 people of Māori origin lived in Australia, compared to 26,000 in 1986 and just 862 in 1966 (though the 1966 figure is somewhat inaccurate because Māori with European heritage were not counted). Māori in Australia were often known as Maussies or Mozzies – or Ngāti Kangaru.

Migration and workforce

Since the 1960s a majority of Māori have been urban dwellers. The proportion of Māori who lived in urban areas increased from 25% in 1945 to 62% in 1966. The Māori exodus from rural areas after the Second World War was one of the most rapid urban migrations in the world at the time. Prior to this, Māori workers were concentrated in the primary sector. Increasing urban migration was connected with a shift of Māori workers into the secondary and tertiary sectors.

Age structure and workforce

The relative youth of the Māori population means that the proportion entering the workforce age population is greater than for the older European population, and the proportion leaving (entering retirement) is smaller. These differences give rise to a potential 'collateral' demographic dividend for Māori, as Māori workers replace Europeans.

In 2013 Māori at labour market entry age (15–24 years) accounted for around 18% of all people at that age. This is projected to increase to 21% by 2038. Pasifika (9%) and Asian (13%) youth are projected to rise to 12% and 18% respectively. 

    • Quoted in Jane Stafford and Mark Williams, Maoriland: New Zealand literature, 1872–1914. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2006, p. 111. Back

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Ian Pool and Natalie Jackson, 'Population change', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 June 2024)

He kōrero nā Ian Pool and Natalie Jackson, i tāngia i te 5 o Mei 2011, reviewed & revised 23 o Ākuhata 2018