International Migration: Some Lessons from New Zealand

I'm spending a fortnight in New Zealand at the invitation of Professor Natalie Jackson and the National Institute of Demographic and Economic Analysis (NIDEA) at the University of Waikato. It's been fascinating to learn about the country's demography and it's future challenges, and there are some interesting contrasts and comparisons to be made with Japan and Europe. When looking at all three, what strikes me is the degree of fit between what we think we know about a country and its people, and the underlying story that is there to be uncovered and told.

University of Waikato, New Zealand.

University of Waikato, New Zealand.

I have always thought of New Zealand as a young country, built on immigration and agriculture, and set to expand its society and economy on the basis of this foundation long into the future. Historically it is young, when we compare the history of human settlement there with Europe and Asia. Young New Zealanders are also frequent visitors to Japan and the UK on working holiday visas enjoying their year or two of OE (Overseas Experience). So the impression I had was one of a youthful country full of vitality.

By the same token, media images of Tokyo as a neon-lit crowded, noisy and bustling metropolis give the impression that Japan too is full of youthful vigour. Though I like to think that Europeans are aware that Japan is rapidly ageing and, even, that it has begun to shrink. But do Europeans know that New Zealand is also experiencing some of these phenomena - that it too is an ageing society with depopulating and declining regions?

Globally there are currently 1.6 million people being born every week, and the latest projections for world population growth indicate that there may be around 10-11 billion people alive on Earth by 2100 - the global population is currently about 7.3 billion (Hansford, 2015: 30; Worldometers, 2015). As of today, 15 January 2015, in New Zealand there are 4,559,303 people, with one person being born every 8 minutes and 34 seconds, and one person dying every 18 minutes and 16 seconds. New Zealand is growing also due to international migration, with a net gain of one new resident every 8 minutes and 21 seconds (SNZ, 2015a). Just to remind ourselves, Japan is shrinking due both to an excess of deaths over births, but also because it is currently a net exporter of people to the rest of the world, though its population is huge by comparison, at more than 127.3 million in 2013 (Statistics Bureau, 2015). Indeed, measured by population size Japan remains the 10th largest country in the world.

But New Zealand's overall growth belies some underlying demographic and economic developments which potentially indicate a more complicated future. Auckland is growing rapidly, at around 1.5 per cent per year and is expected to expand from its currently estimated 1.5 million people to nearly 2 million by 2031. This would mean an increase of about 25 per cent over the next 16 years, with Auckland comprising about two fifths of the country's population by then (SNZ, 2015b). Anecdotally, people that I have met while here wonder about the capacity of the city's infrastructure to accommodate this increase - particularly when there are other regions of the country, such as districts of Waikato, which are already experiencing ageing and anticipating the end of population growth (Cameron, Jackson and Cochrane, 2014).

My intuitive understanding is that the projections for New Zealand may be over-estimating the migration effect on population change into the future. New Zealand has traditionally received its largest share of migrants from Europe (UK and Ireland) and more recently from Northeast Asia (China), with smaller numbers from Pacific countries, South Africa and India, with around 50 per cent beginning their new lives in Auckland (Department of Labour, 2009).

In future it is possible that there will be fewer migrants, as Europe and Asia themselves age and begin to depopulate, and as levels of socio-economic development improve in Asia. The former will provide New Zealand with competition for migrants with high levels of human capital, and the latter will encourage many to forego migration and to remain in their country of origin as opportunities expand. In addition, just as large numbers of people in the early decades of migration into New Zealand settled as pastoralists and farmers in sparsely populated regions, so in future migrants may prefer to work in technical and professional occupations in the already crowded urban centres, potentially prompting a reaction against migration among urban and politically engaged residents. Consequently, there are lessons in this for New Zealand, Japan and Europe.

A black swan and chick on the shore of Lake Taupo, New Zealand.

A black swan and chick on the shore of Lake Taupo, New Zealand.

New Zealand has long been a desirable destination for migrants, and justifiably so. With a clean and attractive natural environment, low population density, a highly developed knowledge economy, friendly people and a pleasant climate, it has many attributes. But, as the rest of the developed world also ages and shrinks, will migrants continue to come to New Zealand if immigration policies change and economic opportunities expand elsewhere? If the majority of migrants continue to settle in Auckland and the country's other major cities, what prospects await those more rural and peripheral regions which are currently experiencing low fertility and ageing and which will not expect to be replenished with international migrants in significant numbers?

Just as the 20th century was different from the 19th, so the 21st century may differ substantially from what preceded. In terms of population change, I have a hunch that past patterns of international migration may not be a very accurate good guide to the future. So, what might New Zealand, Japan and Europe expect?

  • A slowdown in the total number of migrants from traditional sending countries.
  • Fiercer international competition for migrants with high levels of human capital.
  • Increasing numbers of migrants from South Asia and Africa with lower levels of human capital.
  • Fewer migrants seeking settlement in ageing and depopulating agricultural regions.

In my next post, hopefully next week, I'll discuss ageing, depopulation and migration in New Zealand in a bit more detail, once I've visited a couple of rural areas and learnt more from academics and local people. I'll also have some more photos to post.


Cameron, M.P., Jackson, N. and Cochrane, W. (2014) Baseline and Stochastic Population Projections for the Territorial Authorities of the Waikato Region for the Period 2013-2063, National Institute of Demographic and Economic Analysis, University of Waikato.
Department of Labour (2009) Demographic Characteristics of Permanent Migrants, Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment Website, Accessed: 15 January 2015.
Hansford, D. (2015) Full to Brimming, New Zealand Geographic, 131: 30-32.
SNZ (2015) Population Clock, Statistics New Zealand Website, Accessed: 15 January 2015, 12.45pm.
SNZ (2015b) Population, Statistics New Zealand Website, Accessed: 15 January 2015.
Worldometers (2015) World Population Clock, Worldometers Website, Accessed: 15 January 2015.