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Topic 1: Population

At a global level, population growth has a significant impact on sustainable development. In New Zealand, the number of people, where they live, how old they are, and other demographic features have an impact on resources used, waste generated, economic growth, and the kind of community we live in.

The population indicators for New Zealand provide a context for human impact on sustainable development and do not, therefore, relate to any specific defining principles. This topic looks at both past estimates and future projections of the population.

Main results

New Zealand’s population has grown steadily over the 20 years to 2008. At the same time, the population has been ‘ageing’ as the proportion aged 65 years and over (65+) has been increasing. It has also become more ethnically diverse. Population growth has been uneven throughout the country with some regions growing more rapidly than others.

The projections for the next 20 years are for the population to continue to grow but at a slower rate. Over this period, the proportion aged 65+ will continue to increase and the population will become more ethnically diverse.

Table 1.1
Population indicators – key results

Population indicators - key results.

What the indicators tell us

Population size and growth (indicator 1.1)

Population statistics are important components for many sustainable development indicators. For example, measures per person are derived by dividing particular national statistics by the population size. We can then observe whether the statistic in question has changed after changes in population are taken into account. Example measures per person are those for energy supply (see topic 6), public transport (topic 7), investment (topic 11), and household consumption (topic 12).

The estimated resident population of New Zealand at 31 December 2008 was 4.29 million.

Statistics NZ has produced nine projection series that combine different assumptions about the components of population change to illustrate a range of possible future scenarios. According to the mid-range projection (series 5), the population will increase to 5.09 million in 2031 and 5.57 million in 2061. Alternatively, using a higher growth projection (series 9), the population will increase to 6.55 million in 2061, and using a lower growth projection (series 1), the population will peak at 4.83 million in 2041, before decreasing to 4.66 million in 2061. The projections have a 2006 base (see figure 1a).

Between 1951 and 2006, the population grew at an average annual rate of 1.4 percent. Slower growth is expected in the future under all projection scenarios because of the narrowing gap between births and deaths.

New Zealand’s population density is approximately 16 people per square kilometre. This is relatively low by world standards.

Population size: estimated and projected, series 1, 5, and 9.

Fertility rate (indicator 1.2)

Fertility is a key driver of population change, both of its future size and its age distribution.

In the long term, overall fertility rates are expected to trend downwards, with fertility rates among women aged under 30 years generally decreasing since the 1970s. In contrast, fertility rates among women aged 30 years and over have been increasing over the same period as the trend towards later partnering, smaller families, and delayed motherhood has continued.

New Zealand’s fertility rate, which at December 2008 was 2.2, is high by OECD standards (see figure 1b).

Total fertility rate, 1951–2008.

Dependency ratio (indicator 1.3)

The under-15 dependency ratio relates the number of people aged under 15 years to the number of people in the working-age population (15–64 years). The 65+ dependency ratio does the same for people aged 65+. Dependency ratios measure the age structure of the population and provide an indication of potential pressures the economy may face in supporting an economically dependent population. Dependency ratios do not measure actual levels of dependency; this is reflected more by the labour force participation rate (see indicator 10.1).

In the 20 years to 2008, the under-15 dependency ratio has decreased while that for the 65+ has increased. Using the mid-range projection, the 65+ dependency ratio is forecast to more than double over the next four decades. As the under-15 dependency ratio is projected to remain relatively static, the total dependency ratio will increase in parallel with that for the 65+ (see figure 1c). There will also be a significant increase in the proportion of people aged over 80, as the older population is itself ageing. Overall, an ageing population can be expected to consume more health care and require more social assistance.

Dependency ratio, series 5.

Ethnic diversity (indicator 1.4)

Ethnic diversity measures the proportion of the population identifying with various ethnic groups. Increased diversity means different lifestyles, cultures, and ways of participating in society (see topic 15).

The proportions of the Māori, Pacific peoples, and Asian populations in New Zealand have increased in recent decades, and this is expected to continue (see figure 1d).

The greater Māori and Pacific population growth is driven by their higher fertility rates and a young age structure, whereas the faster projected Asian population growth is mainly driven by the assumed level of net migration gains.

By 2026, using the mid-range projection (series 6), the Māori proportion of the population is expected to have increased from 14.9 percent in 2006 to 16.6 percent, the Pacific peoples proportion from 7.2 percent to 9.8 percent, and the Asian proportion from 9.7 percent to 16.0 percent.

Population proportions: estimated and projected, by ethnic group.

Regional population change (indicator 1.5)

Rapid growth of population in specific areas of New Zealand can put strain on regional infrastructure. Declining populations in other areas are a risk to the economic and social sustainability of local communities.

Figure 1e shows that regional growth in the 20 years to 2006 has been uneven. Across New Zealand, some populations have grown, while others have declined. Given the projected narrowing gap between births and deaths, a growing number of areas will rely on migration to maintain or increase their population size. For many areas this would require a reversal of recent historical migration flows.

Almost half New Zealand’s 73 territorial authorities are projected to have fewer residents in 2031 than in 2006. The Auckland region is projected to grow by 1.4 percent each year (see figure 1f), and by 2031, the region is projected to be home to 38 percent of New Zealand’s population, up from 33 percent in 2006.

Population by selected regional council areas, 1986, 2006, 2026.

Projected population growth, by regional council area.

About the indicators

The national population estimates is the source for some of the data used for indicators 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, and 1.4.

Population size and growth (indicator 1.1)

Changes in the size of the resident population result from the difference between births and deaths, and net migration to and from New Zealand on a permanent or long-term basis.

The population projections are from the 2006-base national population projections, released October 2007 (Statistics NZ, 2007a). They assume different net migration in the short term before reaching the long-term levels. The low, medium, and high fertility assumptions are for an average of 1.7, 1.9, and 2.1 births per woman, respectively, in the long term. The break in series between 1990 and 1991 denotes a change from using the de facto population concept to the resident population concept.

The de facto population excludes New Zealand residents temporarily overseas and includes overseas visitors in New Zealand. The usually resident population includes all people who usually live, and are present, in New Zealand on a given census night and excludes visitors from overseas and residents who are temporarily overseas on census night.

Fertility rate (indicator 1.2)

The total fertility rate is the average number of births a woman would have during her life if she experienced the age-specific fertility rate of a given period (usually a year). A rate of 2.1 births per woman would result in the population replacing itself in the long term, ignoring the effects of migration. A rate below 2.1 births per woman may eventually result in population decrease and general population ageing, in the absence of migration or changes in mortality. The age-specific fertility rate is the number of live births to women of a particular age divided by the number of women of that age.

Dependency ratio (indicator 1.3)

Dependency ratios are a crude indicator of the number of people in specified age groups relative to the number of people in the working ages (15–64 years). They are described as crude because they do not allow for the fact that some people aged 15–64 may not be in the workforce while some people aged 65+ may be in the workforce. The projections are from the 2006-base national population projections (Statistics NZ, 2007a), using the mid-range projection (series 5).

Ethnic diversity (indicator 1.4)

Ethnic diversity is measured as the proportion of the population identifying with various ethnic groups.

The proportions for the various ethnic shares of the population are from the 2006-base national ethnic population projections, released April 2008. They use series 6 which assumes medium fertility, medium mortality, medium migration, and medium inter-ethnic mobility. Each ethnic group share is measured in relation to the national population projections (2006-base), series 5, released October 2007 (Statistics NZ, 2007a).

Regional population change (indicator 1.5)

Regional population change measures changes in the population distribution of New Zealand regions resulting from population movements between areas, overseas arrivals and departures, and different fertility and mortality patterns. The projections are from the 2006-base sub-national population projections, according to the medium series. A selection of different regions are shown in figure 1e as representative of all regions in the country.

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