Once a year in New Zealand the National Agricultural Fieldays are held in the Waikato (a couple of hours south of Auckland). At the Fieldays you can find all manner of things rural. Farmers come to buy tractors, to look at new inventions and generally to catch up with people, procedures and things in the farming world. For some reason when I was little (about ten years old) I thought that going to the Fieldays would be awesome, up there with visiting Disneyland. Only in New Zealand I suppose.
This year though demography stuck its ubiquitous head in the door at Fieldays. The Waikato University organised a seminar by Dr Jacques Poot, a professor of population economics at the National Institute of Demographic and Economic Analysis. Over the next 20 years, according to Poot, New Zealand’s rural areas are doomed to age and to shrink. Currently 86% of New Zealand’s population is urban and this proportion is set to increase thanks to “agglomeration” – a global trend of continuing urbanisation. At the moment just over half of the world’s population is urban, but this is expected to rise to two-thirds by 2050. In a similar way, Poot predicts that by 2031, all local authority areas that had populations that were classified as “rural” would be in decline (except western Bay of Plenty).
This raises a couple of questions and issues. First, New Zealand is heavily dependent on its agricultural export sector, particularly the dairy sector. Will an ageing and declining rural population mean that there will be fewer people willing to take over the running of New Zealand’s farms? Will there be fewer people living in small towns that provide services for the surrounding farming district? In short, what will our population change mean for New Zealand’s agricultural sector, and therefore New Zealand’s economy? Secondly, will it take longer for most New Zealander’s to realise how our population is changing? If the vast majority of us live in cities and these cities are growing (or not declining at the same rate as rural areas) it should not be a surprise that many people will not realise how the population as a whole is changing. If the places where people live are increasing at the expense of other areas, then people will naturally conclude that from their own personal experiences the population is growing or continuing as it was before. The fact that other areas are becoming depopulated is harder to grasp than the fact that the city where you live has continued to grow. This last point is applicable right around the world as it continues to become more urbanised. Since we mostly live in concentrated pockets of humanity, all we see is overcrowding and population growth. This may blind us, even if only at a subconscious level, to the wider demographic changes affecting our country and our world.