There was a fascinating in-depth piece of journalism the other day by Steve Kilgallon for stuff.co.nz, probably New Zealand’s leading online source of news.  The piece was fascinating because it was in-depth journalism. New Zealand gets so little of that nowadays that finding any is surprising and worthy of attention.  For our purposes, the piece was fascinating because it was about New Zealand’s population in the future.  An in-depth piece of reporting, in New Zealand, about demography! What a treat! And maybe a sign that the importance of our population in the future is starting to make an impression on people and the media.

Anyway, to the article itself. Although it is provocatively titled “Optimal Size for New Zealand , 15 million” the article actually has little to say about justifying that particular number.  Currently New Zealand’s population sits at just under 4.5 million, so a population of 15 million would be a huge jump and presumably not something that could or would happen quickly.  The 15 million figure comes from the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research, a think tank, which published a paper in January 2012 entitled “Scale Up or Die”.  John Ballingall defends the number of 15 million as a kite flying exercise, to promote discussion on New Zealand’s future:

“‘There’s a massive gap in public policy debate around this, and what we’re trying to do is prompt discussion,’ says Ballingall, who admits 15 million was an ‘arbitrary choice’ designed to illustrate their argument that New Zealand can only be truly economically successful offshore if we upsize.

‘We’re not saying this would be easy, and not saying it would be cost-free, we’re just saying population is an important economic debate that needs to be had,’ he says.

‘A lot of people have put it in the too-hard basket. If as a country we decide that we prefer to stay small then so be it, at least we had a well-informed debate.’

Rather proving Ballingall’s assertion that politicians have steered clear of population debate because it touches upon such sensitivities as immigration, the Greens remain the only party with a population policy.”

 Not surprisingly, the Green Party is not keen on promoting a New Zealand of 15 million people.

“[The Green’s population policy] is based on New Zealand’s ‘ecological carrying capacity’, basically how many people per hectare the environment can sustain. Kennedy Graham says 5.7 million has been suggested as a possible population limit.

Graham says the world’s ecological footprint is already 50 per cent over-capacity; New Zealand requires 4.9 hectares per person when we should need only 1.8, making us the 32nd worst country in the world. Therefore, says Graham, you could argue there are already enough of us.”

According to the article, New Zealand’s population is expected to climb to 5.6 million people by 2036.  But like so much of the rest of the world, this larger population will be much older than it is today.  By 2036, New Zealand’s population over the age of 65 years of age will have doubled.  And this is where the article gets interesting, it spends a lot of time discussing the fact that New Zealand will then be locked into a competition with other countries for an increasingly smaller pool of young, skilled immigrants to keep the country going.  The article acknowledges without much surprise that the scare mongering about the world’s overpopulation is misplaced:

“…the worldwide population boom is actually ending – and when it levels out, we will find ourselves in an increasingly tough race against other western countries to attract skilled migrants to fill the gaps. Persuading young Kiwis not to head to London or Sydney will only get harder – but more important… Traditionally, those who argued against over-population, like the 18th-century thinker Thomas Malthus, worried about famine and mortality; now, it’s more likely to be about a longer commute, less chance of finding a parking spot, or, for some, fear your neighbours are more likely to be immigrants.”

What a change from the alarmist headlines when the world hit 7 billion people! This vein of concern about attracting immigrants continued:

“‘I’ll be a little bit provocative,’ concludes [Auckland’s deputy mayor, Penny] Hulse.

‘We actually need to stop being frightened of growth. If New Zealand is going to go ahead, whether the rest of New Zealand like it or not, I am afraid Auckland does need to be a powerhouse. Growth can fuel that. Growth is neither good nor bad, it’s what you do with it. That’s why we need to get it right.’

One impact of our ageing nation, an ageing planet, and the end of worldwide growth will be a desperate scramble for young talent.

‘Young people will be more in demand,’ says [professor of demography and director of Waikato University Population Studies Centre, Natalie] Jackson.

She says we may struggle to keep ours here. Last year, worryingly, was our biggest-ever exodus to Australia: 54,000 Kiwis crossed the Tasman.”

With so many of our young people being lured overseas, to Australia or to London, or to New Zealand’s biggest city, Auckland, many of our provincial centres are becoming the home of the elderly and that’s about it:

“Globally, people are fleeing to the big smoke. Last year was the first time in human history more people lived in cities than rurally.

In New Zealand, they are moving faster than most, and to just one city. Three out of four “new” New Zealanders – by birth or migration – are Aucklanders.

It’s predicted the City of Sails’ population share will rise from one-third to more than 40 per cent – making it vital that we find answers now to how to live together in our biggest city. And while everyone is cheek-by-jowl in Auckland, the provinces face the opposite problem: it’s entirely possible smaller towns could become ‘grey towns’, entirely populated by retirees, or even ghost towns, where so many have fled to Auckland the place simply closes down.”

We can see the way things are heading by looking at Japan (as we’ve said before, Japan really is the demographic canary in the mine):

“The young are expected to move to Auckland. Jackson says this drift will be compounded by the loss of their ‘reproductive potential’ and the growing number of old people completes the imbalance.

The trend also becomes self-perpetuating: if there aren’t enough children left for a school, teachers lose their jobs and have to go too…

While Japan already plans to close 500 redundant regional towns within the next five years, here it’s likely to be more subtle: the slow withdrawal of services like driver-licensing or the local policeman.

And the big issue, Jackson says, will be the age of those left behind, so if it’s not a ghost town, it will be a grey town. While about half of New Zealand’s provinces will have fewer people in 20 years’ time than they do now, in several other provinces, the only expected growth is in old people.”

I only need to think of my own family to see this happening. My family is from Dannevirke, a town of around 6,000 people. My brother and I live in Auckland.  My sister lives in Wellington. My parents are the only ones left in Dannevirke. I’m sure this example is happening up and down the country. (Not to suggest that my parents are elderly, greying, or near 65 years old…)

So, interesting times ahead for New Zealand. Interesting too that some sensible discussion is happening about demographic in the mainstream media. It certainly makes a break from the doomsday overpopulation stories!

Marcus Roberts was two years out of law school when he decided that practising law was no longer for him. He therefore went back to university and did his LLM while tutoring. He now teaches contract and...