It is ironic that as Paul and Anne Ehrlich were writing their influential book The Population Bomb (1968), the global population growth rate was beginning to fall. Driven by declining birth rates, it has continued to fall, and today is half its 1960s’ level of 2.2 per cent per year. Across the ‘developed’ world, the annual average annual growth rate is now 0.3 per cent, with permanent depopulation evident in Japan and much of Europe. The world’s leading demographers project the end of global population growth around the end of the 21st century with population peaking at less than 11 billion.
The hype surrounding the reality of 7 billion people on the planet in 1999, and the projection of another 3-4 billion by century’s end is thus understandably confusing. Today we hear much more about population ageing and its impact on health care and income support systems when in fact many countries are confronting the end of population growth. Once a population has more elderly than children it is a short step to having more deaths than births and an end to the high levels of natural increase the world has known for the past three centuries. Once natural decline begins, growth can only be achieved by an ever-increasing reliance on migration, but in the context of the global ending of population growth, even that panacea can be sustained for only so long.
The dynamics of the eventual ending of population growth were acknowledged as early as the 1930s when Warren Thompson wrote the first account of what was to become the story of the Global Demographic Transition. He described the fall from high to low fertility and mortality rates punctuated in between by the enormous compounding of population growth that the Ehrlich’s were observing in the 1960s. The cause of this ‘transitional growth’, which meant in effect that more babies were surviving while fertility remained high, was not acknowledged by the Ehrlichs. Because of this the Ehrlichs could not go on to describe what would happen once most babies began to survive: namely, that fertility rates would almost certainly come down. And come down they have! The global fertility rate today is now around 2.8 births per woman, compared with 5.4 births per woman in 1950. The heart-warming news that infant mortality also continues to decline is obscured by growing concerns that almost all the remaining growth the world will experience over coming decades will occur in the ‘developing’ countries. The story for the rest of the world will be of ageing populations, dwindling population growth and in some regions permanent population decline.
With one of the highest birth rates in the developed world, and, in most years, globally high net migration gain per head of population, New Zealand has been largely shielded from the realities of structural ageing. In 1961 New Zealand’s Baby Boom saw the highest peak birth rate of any western country – it was a boom that lasted for around 20 years. These demographic advantages explain New Zealand’s relatively youthful population today, with just 14 per cent of the population aged 65+ years, compared with over 20 per cent in Japan, Germany, Italy, Sweden and Greece. The EU average today is 17 per cent. Still surfing the crest of the demographic wave, New Zealand is unlikely to face the end of growth nationally until at earliest the last quarter of the 21st century alongside the only other continuing high fertility settler country: the United States of America, and of course the collective mass of ‘developing’ countries.
That said there is no room for complacency. With one-third of its population living in Auckland, and that region disproportionately gaining the bulk of the nation’s young immigrants, New Zealand’s demographic dividend is largely enjoyed by Auckland. A more sobering story is unfolding outside the Auckland region. In 2013 over one-third of the nation’s 67 Territorial Local Authority (TA) areas were smaller in population size than in 1996. Although some localised jostling is occurring and will continue to do so for the immediate future, the 2013 Census confirmed that 20 TAs (30 per cent) declined between 2006 and 2013, up from 22 per cent between 2001 and 2006. Looking ahead, two-thirds of New Zealand’s growth over the next two decades is projected to be at 65+ years. At TA level, 84 per cent will see all growth at 65+ years, with an overall decline in most other age groups.
Thus far, only two of New Zealand’s depopulating TAs are declining because of what is being called (internationally) the ‘new’ form of decline: this means the onset of a natural decline in the population that exceeds any net migration gain. The rest are declining because of the ‘old’ form of depopulation, namely net migration loss. It is here that an intractable situation is setting in, because migration loss occurs disproportionately at the young reproductive ages. This means that along with the migrants goes their reproductive potential. In the past, that loss was concealed by the high levels of natural increase emanating from still-youthful age structures. Local councils and businesses who were seemingly concerned with the bottom line saw their populations growing. Where structural ageing is accelerated by the loss of young reproductive age people, TA after TA will enter zero population growth and in some cases permanent decline.
Even where growth continues the reality is that ageing-driven growth is not the same as youth-driven growth. By 2016, two-thirds of New Zealand’s TAs are projected to have fewer people at labour market entry age than entering the retirement zone, a situation already evident in half of the nation’s TAs. By 2026 New Zealand will have more people over the age of 65 than children. This is already the case in one-fifth of TAs. These profound shifts in population composition will have significant implications such as reducing the local labour supply, increasing labour costs, and making it almost impossible for local councils to generate sufficient revenue from rates to deliver adequate and equitable services.
Another reason why New Zealanders should not be complacent in the face of these population trends, centres on the considerable risk associated with being the last cab off the rank, the ‘baby’ of the ‘developed’ world. New Zealand is now competing for skilled international migrants with its structurally older counterparts. Over the next two decades the number of people aged 0-64 years in the 58 More Developed Countries is projected to decline by around 41 million, at the same time as almost 100 million will be added to the current 200 million aged 65+ years. Such is the profound nature of structural ageing. While the excess billions in the ‘developing’ countries would almost certainly like to settle in New Zealand, there is a genuine concern regarding the skill level of potential migrants.
In the medium to longer term, New Zealand would clearly benefit from a targeted migration program that includes skills training, whether before or after arrival, rather than fighting for those migrants who are already skilled and in increasing demand. In the shorter term, New Zealand could benefit from the type of regional development and decentralisation policies being implemented across Europe and even across the Tasman. New Zealand has pursued such policies in the past. Perhaps it is time we examined those policies again as well as the principles on which they were based. Population matters too much to be left to chance.