In the eyes of many around the world the COVID experience of Australia and New Zealand has been a relatively benign one. But as I mentioned last week (here and here) New Zealand is going to have to deal with some significant demographic headwinds in the years ahead due to the pandemic.
Now, it seems as if its cousins in the West Island are also facing similar issues. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the Australian demographic figures are heading downwards. The nation’s population growth rate is set to be lowest since World War One, while its total fertility rate is likely to fall to the lowest rate on record.
Net overseas migration is forecast to collapse from 154,000 last year to 31,000 in 2020-21. At the same time, the natural population increase is slowing. Even before the pandemic and its attendant economic disruption hit the country was already experiencing the smallest natural increase in 14 years. This is set to continue, the government forecasts that the country’s fertility rate will drop to an all-time low of 1.59 children per woman this year, and will stay around that level to at least 2030.
According to demographer Liz Allen of the Australian National University, Australia is “in deep strife”.
This demographic slowdown will be a particular shock to Australia and its economy since it has benefited from strong population growth since the late 1940s. Population growth was a factor in the coutry’s three decades without a recession from 1990. During that time the Australian population grew by 51 per cent (8.6 million). Among its economic peers, only Canada grew anywhere near that rate at 36 per cent (10 million).
In the years ahead Australia will be older and smaller than had previously been assumed. Dr Allen predicts that the demographic ripples from COVID will be felt for years.
But it is not just COVID to thank for lower population growth: there are many barriers which prevent families from having the number of children that they want. There are economic barriers such as the cost of childcare and the effect taking maternity leave has on women’s careers. These will continue even once the effect of this pandemic has subsided.
But the future of Australia lies in its children. To what extent has Australia’s response to COVID jeopardised that future?