People

New Zealand’s growing population

In 2012, New Zealand’s population was estimated to have passed 4,444,444. This could have happened with the arrival of a new baby, a new migrant, or a New Zealander returning from overseas.
  • Image, a group of people with raised hands jumping.

    What does the future hold?

    Some people suggest a larger population of 7, 10, or 15 million would give economic benefits. Other people wonder about the social and environmental downsides of a much larger population.

    Can New Zealand reach 7 million by 2061?

    Population estimates show the New Zealand population was around 4.45 million at the start of 2013. Is population growth of another 2.55 million feasible in less than 50 years?

    Statistics NZ’s 2011-base national population projections indicate this level of growth is unlikely. The chance of New Zealand reaching 7 million people by 2061 is estimated at 1 in 25.

    The median projection (there is an estimated 50 percent chance the population could be lower, and a 50 percent chance it could be higher) is a population of 6 million in 2061. In order to reach a population of 6 million, we need:

    • a total fertility rate of 1.9 births per woman in the long term
    • life expectancy at birth increasing to 89.3 years in 2061
    • net migration gain of 12,000 a year in the long term.

    What trends were seen in 2012? 

    Those are an indication of the long-term trends, but how was New Zealand looking in 2012?

    Life expectancy at birth during 2010–12 was 81.2 years (for males and females combined). The median assumption of 89.3 years in 2061 requires adding another eight years to life expectancy at birth over the next 50 years.

    New Zealand’s total fertility rate was 2.05 births per woman in 2012. This fertility rate fluctuated between 1.9 and 2.2 during 1983–2012, with an average of about 2.02 births per woman. The median assumption of 1.9 births per woman allows for some further decline in average completed family size, reflecting longer historical trends.

    Our net migration balance was negative in 2012. New Zealand had 1,200 more departures than arrivals in 2012, although in most years we have more arrivals than departures. 

    How can we achieve 7 million by 2061?

    The chance may appear unlikely, but how much would New Zealand’s numbers need to change if the population were to reach 7 million by 2061?

    There are many scenarios by which New Zealand’s population could reach 7 million. If we maintain our median fertility and mortality assumptions, we would need to average a net gain of 26,000 migrants a year during 2013–61. New Zealand has had occasional periods where the net migration gain exceeded 25,000 a year. However, our migration levels have varied widely, with several periods of net migration loss.

    Another way we could reach 7 million by 2061 is if women averaged 2.1 births each and net migration averaged 20,000 a year. New Zealand’s total fertility rate has occasionally reached this height over the last few decades; the years 2007 to 2011 had rates at or above this level.

    New Zealand's population could also reach 7 million by 2061 if women averaged 2.1 births each and our life expectancy at birth increased to 95 years in 2061. New Zealand’s net migration would need to average 16,500 a year under these circumstances.

    The possibility of a population of 7 million or higher in 2061 is therefore theoretically achievable, but unlikely. That’s because we would need fertility and/or migration levels that are significantly higher than those we have experienced in recent decades. And because the age structure of New Zealand's population is changing, past growth rates are a poor indicator of future growth rates.

    New Zealand would certainly be a more crowded place with 7 million people. With 4.45 million people, population density averages about 17 people per square kilometre. If we had 7 million people, that number rises to over 26 people per square kilometre.

    What level is more likely?

    A population of around 6 million in 2061 is more likely than a population of over 7 million.

    Projections also indicate the structure of our future population. One of the most striking aspects of the main trends from the 2011-base projections is how much the population will have aged by 2061. Under the median projection, the proportion of the population aged 65 years and over (65+) will be 26 percent in 2061. It was 14 percent in 2013. The number of people in this age group will have grown from 600,000 in 2013, to 1.5 million in 2061.

    The projections also indicate that by the late 2020s, the 65+ age group will outnumber those in the 0–14 age group. In 2013, the 65+ age group numbered some 600,000 people, while there were 900,000 children. The projections also indicate that population growth will slow as the population ages, and there is a 1 in 3 chance that deaths will outnumber births in 2061.

    Graph showing age distribution of population: 1951–2061.

    Source: Statistics New Zealand

There are many scenarios in which New Zealand’s population could reach 7 million.
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