Too often the commentators in the mainstream media remind us that New Zealand has an ‘aging population’. We are reminded that we need to be concerned by the increasing burden that these old people will place on our society and how this aging population can only be detrimental to our nation. Yet, are there no benefits from having an older population? And more to the point, is our population aging or is it balancing?
The median age of New Zealand’s population, in 1901, was 23 and, as the population pyramid below shows, it was very ‘bottom heavy’. to maintain a younger median age would require a constant high fertility rate and a resultant rapidly growing population with the associated societal problems. Almost all nations with a high fertility rate have serious societal problems, such as poverty, high youth unemployment and a high dependency ratio.
If the total fertility rate of a society drops below replacement (approximately 2.1) and stays there, the median age will increase and the population eventually decrease. The resultant population pyramid will become ‘top heavy’, such as the projected 2030 population pyramid for Japan below. This may result in some societal problems such a high dependency ratio, however, it is unlikely to result high youth unemployment (most likely the opposite) and in Japan’s case it may result in some societal benefits as Japan is already densely populated.
The total fertility rate for New Zealand has remained around replacement level for the past 30 years and does not show any sign of dropping below replacement. Therefore although the median age in New Zealand is increasing, if the fertility rate remains constant then the population will eventually become balanced (see the 2061 projected population pyramid below).
This would put New Zealand in a ‘sweet spot’ where the dependency ratio is neither skewed towards the young or the elderly and would result in a population that is neither expanding nor shrinking. Therefore all this talk of New Zealand’s population aging needs to stop. instead we need to describe New Zealand’s population as balancing and make known the associated societal benefits.