Boomers and babies – our population transforms

Wednesday 19 August 2020
Our five million-strong population is riding a wave of unprecedented social change - from plummeting birth rates and a burgeoning number of older people to Auckland's surge as an ethnically diverse supercity.
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Demographer Distinguished Professor Paul Spoonley hopes his new book will foster wider discussion about the need for a population policy.

Last updated: Friday 1 April 2022

Our five million-strong population is riding a wave of unprecedented social change – from plummeting birth rates and a burgeoning number of older people to Auckland’s surge as an ethnically diverse supercity. 

But leading demographer Distinguished Professor Paul Spoonley is concerned policymakers are not facing up to the scale, scope and impact these tectonic shifts are having – and will increasingly have – when it comes to long-term planning and policy for employment, health, housing and infrastructure.

In his new book: The New New Zealand: Facing demographic disruption (published this week by Massey University Press), Professor Spoonley examines the implications of these influences on our population. And he offers insights on what we should be thinking about in preparing for the future – from designing neighbourhoods better equipped to cater for older people or those with dementia, to adapting our views to recognise the changed nature of  ‘families’ in the 21st century.

The four big themes he covers in the book are: declining fertility, rapid ageing of the population, a growing concentration in Auckland, and immigration. 

“The results of the demographic transition which we’re going through now is something we’ve never encountered before,” he says. “We’ve never had a society in which one in four people is aged over 65, for example. It is unprecedented.”

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Cover of Professor Spoonley's book

Boomers re-invent ageing

One of the “good news” stories, he says, is that baby boomers, who began reaching 65 in 2010, are the healthiest and wealthiest generation in this age group ever – and they are redefining ageing. A new United Nations’ report also confirms we are living longer. New Zealand rates among the highest in the world when life expectancy is calculated from the time we reach 65. Life expectancy averaged over a lifetime is 82 years, but when it is calculated as remaining years left,  that means an additional 19.6 years for men and 21.6 years for women, with this expected to rise to 24 years (up to 89) under the UN formula.

The policy and economic implications of these statistics – and how a smaller cohort will be faced with funding the care of a much larger cohort of elderly people – needs to be addressed, he says. And while society tends to see 65 as the normal start point for retirement, one quarter of New Zealanders now work past the age of 65 (the age of eligibility for superannuation). 

“As more and more people keep working past the age of 65, we need to think about what the age of eligibility for superannuation should be and to think about means testing superannuation,” Professor Spoonley says. “It’s a generous system but not sustainable long-term. It imposes a significant financial responsibility on subsequent generations.”

He is “frustrated’ at the party manifestos leading into the 2020 election so far. “It seems very few are engaging with these long-term population changes. There’s literally nothing about superannuation.”

We are family 

Another topic Professor Spoonley has researched thoroughly during his 40+ years as a leading sociologist and demographer is the changing nature of family. “I would note that the contemporary family is now an enormously varied institution and very often our policies still revolve around a notion that the nuclear family as being the typical family – and it’s not. There’s a lot of looking back and not too much looking forward.”

The family norm of last century in New Zealand, Professor Spoonley reminds us, was three+ children, two parents with dad as the main breadwinner. The median age for women to marry was 22, only five per cent of women aged between 30 and 39 never married and the divorce rate was three couples per 1000 (in the early 1960s). Only five per cent of families were sole parent compared with 28 per cent now. The average age to marry is now 30 (if a couple marries at all), and the current rate is around 10 couples per thousand people, while the divorce rate is just over 12 per thousand. Forecasts for the next 20 years indicate many families will either have one child or be childless.

“When you consider major shifts to the nature of the family and inter-generational differences, the need for refreshed policy settings to encompass these new realities all need to come together,” he adds.

Two barriers to developing a coherent, comprehensive population policy are, he says, our short political cycle that doesn’t encourage an engagement with long-term issues, and the fact that “we do a lot of work but it’s typically in silos. We have quite a few institutions working on population issues but we need to bring all that work together – that’s why I keep talking about the need for a population policy.”

Scandinavian nations offer promising models of successful population policies. They tend to invest more in aged care by, for example, building communities that are sensitive to dementia sufferers. Features include having mixed generations alongside each other, with tertiary students getting a rent reduction if they live in facilities with some older people and provide companionship and even care. And they provide extremely generous provisions for those having children.

“Older people really love being around younger people – and anything that encourages the mixing of generation is good for everybody,” says Professor Spoonley.

Immigration tap turned off

The major source of population growth in the last decade has been immigration. Professor Spoonley notes that the 12 months to June 2020 have seen the highest net gain from migration ever (+79,400), but COVID-19 has now reduced these flows by 90 per cent. 

“What immigration levels and flows should we have in place for the 2020s?”, he asks, “and where should these migrants be encouraged to go in terms of regions and centres once they arrive?”

We need to talk about this issue as well as fertility alongside the needs of the ageing population and the diversity of the modern family, says Professor Spoonley. He hopes his new book – which grew out of intense interest in a series of public forums around the regions on population trends, hosted by the College of Humanities and Social Sciences and a slot on Nine to Noon over recent years – will improve the evidence base for public discussion and provide a call to action.  

“We know pretty much what New Zealand will look like in 2030 – and we are not preparing for what will emerge,” says Professor Spoonley. “We talk about disruption and transformation to do with technology – and I want to make a plea for considering demographic change as being as equally important.” 

Read ’10 Questions with Paul Spoonley’ on the Massey University Press website here.