Marcus Roberts, senior researcher at independent think-thank Maxim Institute in Auckland New Zealand

A slow-moving, silent revolution

By Marcus Roberts March 14, 2024

Last year, our population boomed. After two years of anaemic population growth, 2023 saw the country grow by a whopping 2.8% or 145,100 people. We haven’t seen anything like this amount of growth for at least a generation.

But this was almost entirely due to immigration. Our annual natural increase (births minus deaths) was less than 20,000, the lowest in almost 80 years.

The number of deaths keeps increasing each year. At the same time, the number of births is trending down. Our Total Fertility Rate (TFR) is now at the lowest level ever recorded.

A TFR of 2.1 is the “replacement rate”—the number needed to keep a population stable without immigration… Last year, it hit 1.56. To put that in context, with this TFR, 100 grandparents would have 61 grandchildren.

A TFR measures the number of children a woman is expected to have in her lifetime. A TFR of 2.1 is the “replacement rate”—the number needed to keep a population stable without immigration.

From the 1970s until 2012, our TFR hovered around 2.1. However, since then, it has steadily declined. Last year, it hit 1.56. To put that in context, with this TFR, 100 grandparents would have 61 grandchildren.

Our nation is hardly an outlier in having a low TFR. In fact, we are still fecund compared to many other advanced economies such as Japan, China and South Korea.

Globally, fertility rates are trending downwards; over half of the world’s countries have below replacement fertility rates.

Our superannuation resembles a Ponzi scheme—only financially sustainable if there are more people (new workers) coming into the scheme than are leaving (retirees).

The world is going through a demographic sea change. Our population will get older. We need to start discussing how we are going to navigate this.

Declining fertility has grave implications for our economic system. Our superannuation resembles a Ponzi scheme—only financially sustainable if there are more people (new workers) coming into the scheme than are leaving (retirees). But our population pyramid is now starting to look more like a column and will eventually invert.

Just like it did in 2023, migration can make up for low or negative natural population growth. However, as the world’s population continues to age and fertility rates everywhere decline, there will be hot competition for migrants. The UN predicts that over the next few decades, “migration will be the sole driver of population growth in high-income countries.”

American critic Ross Douthat puts it another way: “…we are ageing, comfortable and stuck, cut off from the past and no longer optimistic about the future”.

Climate change concerns are driving at least some young people’s choices to have fewer children. Well, there seem to be good reasons to think that – if we do not change our consumption and travel lifestyles- limiting our family size will have little impact on climate change in the necessary timeframe.

As Stats NZ notes, a declining fertility rate is correlated to increased female education and employment opportunities. However, it has also been observed that declining fertility rates in other countries (for example, Australia and the USA) are partly attributable to women having fewer children than they desired.

The author of one of those studies adds, “People feel more worried about the future than they might have been several decades ago. ”

American critic Ross Douthat puts it another way: “…we are ageing, comfortable and stuck, cut off from the past and no longer optimistic about the future”.

But the future is coming, and it will be one marked more by funerals than by christenings.

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Director of Research and Development Marcus Roberts explains the thinking behind his column.

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Marcus Roberts, senior researcher at independent think-thank Maxim Institute in Auckland New Zealand

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