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National Population Projections: 2011(base)–2061
Embargoed until 10:45am  –  19 July 2012
Commentary

Important advice for using projections

National population projections give an indication of the future population usually living in New Zealand. The projections cover a range of possible outcomes based on different combinations of fertility, mortality, and migration assumptions. Users can make their own judgement as to which projections are most suitable for their purposes.

These projections are not predictions. The projections should be used as an indication of the overall trend, rather than as exact forecasts. The projections are updated every 2–3 years to maintain their relevance and usefulness, by incorporating new information about demographic trends and developments in methods.

At the time of release, the median projection (50th percentile) indicates an estimated 50 percent chance that the actual result will be lower, and a 50 percent chance that the actual result will be higher, than this percentile. Other percentiles indicate the distribution of values (such as projection results or assumptions). For example, the 25th percentile indicates an estimated 25 percent chance that the actual result will be lower, and a 75 percent chance that the actual result will be higher, than this percentile. Shading in graphs indicates the chance that actual results will fall within a certain range. Different shading is used to distinguish different ranges.

The following results highlight the main trends from the projections.

Slower population growth

Population growth will slow in the future. The median projection indicates that annual population growth will average about:

  • 0.9 percent during the 2010s
  • 0.8 percent during the 2020s
  • 0.6 percent during the 2030s
  • 0.5 percent during the 2040s
  • 0.4 percent during the 2050s.

There is roughly a 1 in 6 chance that the population will be declining by 2061.

New Zealand's population grew at an average rate of 1.3 percent a year between 1951 and 2012. The growth rate has generally been slowing as fertility rates have fallen and the population age structure has changed. Population growth averaged 2.2 percent during the 1950s but only 0.7 percent during the 1980s. Growth averaged 1.2 percent in the decade ending 2012.

Graph, Annual population growth rate, from 1951 to 2061.

Narrowing gap between births and deaths

The slower population growth is driven by the narrowing gap between births and deaths. Annual births may increase slightly. From 61,000 in 2012, there is roughly a 3 in 5 chance that births will exceed 61,000 in 2036. There is a similar chance that births will exceed 61,000 in 2061.

There is, however, considerable uncertainty in the number of births. Future birth numbers depend on the number of women of childbearing age, as well as their fertility rates (how many children they have and the timing of their births). By 2061, there is roughly a 1 in 4 chance that annual births could exceed 80,000. Conversely, by 2061 there is roughly a 1 in 4 chance that annual births could be less than 52,000.

The future number of deaths is more certain. Deaths are expected to increase steadily despite assumed lower death rates and increasing life expectancy. From 30,000 deaths in 2012, it is highly likely that deaths will exceed 40,000 in 2036. It is highly likely deaths will exceed 50,000 after 2051. Deaths will rise as ever greater numbers of people reach the older ages where most deaths occur. Currently, about 3 in 4 male deaths, and 5 in 6 female deaths, occur at ages 65 years and over (65+).

Graph, Births, from 1951 to 2061.

Graph, Deaths, from 1951 to 2061.

With deaths rising faster than births, annual natural increase (births minus deaths) is likely to decrease. From 31,000 in 2012, there is roughly a 3 in 4 chance that natural increase will be less than 27,000 in 2036. There is a similar chance natural increase will be less than 25,000 in 2061. There is also a small chance of natural decrease (deaths outnumber births) by 2036, but roughly a 1 in 3 chance of natural decrease by 2061.

Graph, Natural increase, from 1951 to 2061.

Graph, Median age, from 1951 to 2061.

Ageing population

There will be significant changes in the age structure of the population. The median age of New Zealand's population increased from 26 years in 1971 to 37 years in 2012. It is likely that the median age will exceed 41 years by the late 2030s. Half the population could be older than 44 years by 2061. The gradual ageing reflects the combined impact of people having fewer children (sub-replacement fertility), people living longer, and the large number of people born between 1950 and the early 1970s moving into the older ages (65+).

Population ageing is not caused by the baby boomers, but by the transition to lower birth rates and lower death rates. The projections indicate that once the baby boomers have moved through the age structure, the New Zealand population will not revert to a younger age structure – barring major changes in childbearing patterns (fertility rates).

Population age-sex pyramids
1961, 2011, 2036 and 2061

Graph, 1961 population age-sex pyramid.

Graph, 2011 population age-sex pyramid.

Graph, 2036 projected population age-sex pyramid.

Graph, 2061 projected population age-sex pyramid.

Note: Percentiles shown are 5th, 25th, 50th, 75th, and 95th.

Slightly more children

The number of children aged 0–14 years peaked at 940,000 in 1974, then decreased steadily to 770,000 in 1989, before generally increasing to 890,000 in 2012. The number of children may increase slightly, reaching 940,000 in 2036 and 970,000 in 2061 (in the median projection). Projections of the number of children are most uncertain because the number of future births is uncertain.

Although the number of children may increase, it will not increase as fast as the older segment of the population. As a result, the proportion of the population aged less than 15 years is likely to decrease. From 1 in 3 of the population during the early 1960s, and 1 in 5 of the population in 2012, it is highly likely that children will account for less than 1 in 5 of the population throughout the projection period (2011–61). 

Graph, Population by broad age group, from 1951 to 2061.

Note: The break in data between 1990 and 1991 denotes a change from the de facto population concept to the resident population concept.

More people aged 15–64 years

The number of people aged 15–64 years more than doubled from 1.2 million to 2.9 million between 1951 and 2012. It is projected to grow gradually, with the median projection indicating 3.2 million in 2036 and 3.5 million in 2061. Those aged 15–64 years would then make up 58 percent of the total population, compared with 66 percent in 2012.

The number of people aged 40–64 years increased rapidly during the 1990s and 2000s as the baby boomers moved into this age group. The increase will slow during the 2010s and 2020s as the number of people entering the age group only slightly exceeds those leaving it. The median projection indicates that the number of people in this age group (1.43 million in 2012) will increase to 1.54 million in 2036, and 1.74 million in 2061. In 2061, 29 percent of the population would be aged 40–64 years, down from a peak of 32 percent in 2011.

The median projection indicates that the number of people aged 15–39 years (1.50 million in 2012) will increase to 1.67 million in 2036, and 1.74 million in 2061. This age group accounted for about 41 percent of the population in the mid-1980s and 34 percent of the population in 2012. It is expected to account for only 31 percent in 2036 and 29 percent in 2061.

Fastest growth at older ages

The number of people aged 65+ has doubled since 1980, eclipsing 600,000 in 2012. The number is likely to double again by 2036. It is highly likely that there will be 1.18–1.25 million people aged 65+ in 2036, and 1.44–1.66 million in 2061. The largest growth will occur between 2011 and 2036, as the baby boomers move into the 65+ age group.

By 2031, it is expected that between 20 and 22 percent of New Zealanders will be aged 65+, compared with 14 percent in 2012. By 2061, it is expected that between 22 and 30 percent of the population will be aged 65+. 

Graph, Population aged 65+ years, from 1951 to 2061.

 Graph, Change in population aged 65+ years, five years ended 1956 to 2061.

Note: The break in data between 1990 and 1991 denotes a change from the de facto population concept to the resident population concept. 

 

Within the 65+ age group, the number of people aged 85 and over (85+) is expected to increase significantly. From 76,000 in 2012, it is highly likely that there will be 180,000–210,000 people aged 85+ in 2036, and 290,000–430,000 in 2061. By 2061, about 1 in 4 people aged 65+ will be 85+, compared with 1 in 8 in 2012. 

More aged 65+ relative to those aged 15–64 

Dependency ratios relate the number of people in the 'dependent' age groups (defined here as 0–14 and 65+ years) to the 'working-age' population (15–64 years). They are an indicator of changes in New Zealand's age structure. Dependency ratios do not allow for the fact that some people in the working-age population may not be in the workforce, while some people aged 65+ may be in the workforce. In the case of those aged 65+, the term 'dependency' does not necessarily imply financial or economic dependency, as those aged 65+ are generally living longer, are healthier, and are working longer.

The 65+ dependency ratio (the number of people aged 65+ per 100 people aged 15–64 years) increased gradually from 14 per 100 in the mid-1960s to 20 per 100 in 2011. It is projected to increase significantly, with the ratio expected to be in the range 36–39 per 100 in 2036, and 39–51 per 100 in 2061. This means that for every person aged 65+, there will be about 2.6 people aged 15–64 in 2036 and 2.3 in 2061, compared with 5.0 people in 2011 and 7.1 in the mid-1960s.

In contrast, the 0–14 dependency ratio (the number of people aged 0–14 years per 100 people aged 15–64 years) decreased from a peak of 57 per 100 in 1961 to 31 per 100 in 2011. This downward trend will probably continue, with the ratio expected to be in the range 23–35 per 100 in 2036, and 18–37 per 100 in 2061.

Graph, 65+ dependency ratio, from 1951 to 2061.

Graph, 0-14 dependency ratio, from 1951 to 2061.

The total dependency ratio (sum of the 0–14 and 65+ dependency ratios) reached its lowest level since the mid-1930s in 2008 (50 per 100). It is projected to increase from 51 per 100 in 2011, with the ratio expected to be in the range 61–73 per 100 in 2036, and 66–79 per 100 in 2061. The 65+ dependency ratio will then contribute three-fifths of the total dependency ratio compared with two-fifths in 2011. A total dependency ratio of over 70 per 100 was also experienced around 1960, but then the 65+ dependency ratio contributed about one-fifth of the total dependency ratio.

Additional 'what if?' scenarios

The projections discussed above cover a range of possible outcomes based on different combinations of fertility, mortality, and migration assumptions. Five additional projections have been derived to explore other scenarios of interest.

The median projection indicates that the population will increase by about 1.6 million people between 2011 and 2061 to 6.0 million. Population growth would be higher if fertility, life expectancy, or net migration (arrivals minus departures) were higher.

What if fertility was higher?

The population would reach 7 million by 2061 with a total fertility rate of 2.5 births per woman (very high fertility) or net migration exceeding 25,000 a year (very high migration). While these scenarios produce a similar population size, the very high fertility scenario would produce a much younger age structure.

With a total fertility rate of 2.5 births per woman, births would continue to outnumber deaths by 30,000–50,000 between 2011 and 2061. There would be 108,000 births in 2061 under this scenario, compared with 66,000 under the median projection. The number of children would rise by 69 percent over the projection period, compared with 8 percent under the median projection. Population ageing would continue but at a much slower rate, with the median age increasing from 37 years in 2012 to peak at 39 years in 2039, before falling back to 38 years in 2061. By comparison, in the median projection, the median age increases steadily to 44 years in 2061.

The very high fertility scenario results in a lower 65+ dependency ratio in 2061 – 38 per 100 compared with 44 per 100 in the median projection. However, the 0–14 dependency ratio would be much higher – 37 per 100 compared with 28 per 100 in the median projection. The total dependency ratio would also be higher – 75 per 100 compared with 72 per 100 in the median projection.

What if migration was higher?

Net migration of 25,000 a year would also slow the ageing of the population, but much less than the very high fertility scenario. The median age would increase to 43 years in 2061 with very high net migration – virtually the same as the median projection (44 years).

There would be 17 percent more people, 20 percent more births, and 6 percent more deaths in 2061 than in the median projection. By 2061, births would exceed deaths by 21,000, compared with a gap of 11,000 in the median projection.

Graph, Projected New Zealand population, from 2011 to 2061.

Graph, Projected population aged 65+, from 2011 to 2061.

What if life expectancy was higher?

The median projection assumes recent reductions in age-specific death rates continue over the projection period. If recent increases in period life expectancy at birth continue, people could live even longer. Life expectancy could reach 95.0 years for males and females in 2061 (very low mortality). The population would then reach 6.3 million in 2061. This is 260,000 more people than under the median projection. Almost 240,000 of these people would be in the 65+ age group, which would triple in size to 1.78 million in 2061. The 85+ age group would increase to over 550,000 in 2061 – almost 200,000 more than the median projection.

With more people in the older ages, the population would age even faster than in the median projection – the median age of the population would near 46 years in 2061. The 65+ dependency ratio would also be higher, reaching 51 per 100 in 2061 compared with 44 per 100 under the median projection. Deaths would total 46,000 in 2061 compared with 55,000 under the median projection.

What if there was no migration?

An interesting projection for comparative purposes is to assume no arrivals and no departures. This shows how the population is affected by births and deaths. With no migration, the population would peak at 5.1 million in the mid-2050s then slowly decline as deaths outnumber births. Despite deaths outnumbering births, the population of 5.1 million in 2061 would still be 690,000 higher than the 2011 population. Compared with the median projection, the population would be lower in all age groups, but the median age and 65+ dependency ratio would be higher.

What if migration fluctuated?

The projections assume that net migration varies each year, although the median projection assumes net migration is a constant 12,000 from 2015. However, actual net migration tends to fluctuate significantly from year to year. The cyclic migration scenario assumes net migration fluctuates between -10,000 and +30,000 on a 10-year cycle. The net migration gain between 2011 and 2061 is the same as the median projection.

The population in 2061 is just 4,000 lower in the cyclic migration scenario than the median projection. However, between 2011 and 2061 the population varies between being 37,000 lower and 24,000 higher than the median projection, because of the annual differences in net migration. Other characteristics of the population (eg age distribution, dependency ratios, births, deaths) are very similar between the two projections. A constant level of migration in the long term is therefore a sufficient assumption for most purposes.

For more detailed data see the Excel tables in the ‘Downloads’ box.

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