Jenny Nicholls on a professor’s warnings of our ageing, swelling population

There are too many boomers, but not enough kids. New Zealand is ageing fast, but unevenly. In provincial towns, shops are empty and bungalows hard to sell. Meanwhile, Auckland is swelling like Violet the blueberry addict in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. It’s in marked contrast to the demographic trend overseas, which is for big cities to shrink. In a decade or so, Auckland is likely to be home to some 40 per cent of the country’s population – who will require “eye-watering” levels of civic funding.

Demography – the composition of populations – matters. As an expert in the field, Massey University Professor Paul Spoonley brings forth a mass of unsettling data in his portrait of who we are, The New New Zealand.

Our own population composition happened fast. “The past,” he writes, “is not a good indicator of the future. The demographic transition [in New Zealand] is so profound that there is little in our historic responses to guide us… in 2017 there were more people aged over 65 than there were under five; this has never happened before in high-income countries.”

Population projections in the past were too wrong, Spoonley argues, to help formulate useful social policy. In 2004, it was predicted that New Zealand would contain five million by 2050. In fact, we got there four months ago; only 30 years too early. “How did we get those forecasts so wrong?” asked Herald business editor at large Liam Dann in January, in a piece about New Zealand’s unexpected population boom.

Chapters with titles such “Ok Boomer”, “The Rise – or Fall– of Regions,” and “Modern Families” contain much unsettling  demographic data. A concept which might be vaguely understood – the national yoke of life-transforming educational debt, perhaps – is spelled out in numbers that take the breath away.

Spoonley writes, “Since 1992, 1.3 million New Zealanders have taken out study loans and borrowed a total of NZ$26.6 billion. Today over 700,000 New Zealanders have some level of fees-related debt. The median debt is $16,125, and over 100,000 have overdue student loans.” This book is filled with such numbers of potent import. They surge and retreat, and, sweeping in again, threaten to overwhelm us. In 1989 the average tertiary education fee was $516. In 2016, it was $6938.

Educational debt, says Spoonley (born in 1951), “has been a major factor in elongating the transition from dependent student to independent adult, stifling the opportunity to establish relationships, buy a house, and so on.” New Zealand millennials (those born between 1981 and 2000) entered adulthood with massive levels of educational debt as houses soared in value and jobs became, not only tougher to get, but less unionised, less safe, and less lucrative. Lunchbreak? What’s that?

The book is marketed as a wake-up call. There is importantly scary stuff in here,  but we might wish that Spoonley had left his academic prose hanging in the wardrobe, and pulled out his megaphone more often. A not atypical awful sentence: “The ongoing demographic changes are so unprecedented that they challenge the normative views about key social and cultural institutions.” Sounds serious! Does it hurt?

“Spoonley presents climate change  as something millennials worry about”

Spoonley explores recent arguments against “unfettered immigration”, including Ranginui Walker’s point that New Zealand’s first immigration policy was Te Tiriti o Waitangi. His own views about immigration might be parsed from paragraphs like this: “One of the conundrums of modern demography is that at the very moment that many countries need to address population stagnation and possibly decline, immigration is often seen as among the least desirable options. There is good evidence that migration contributes to economic and social vitality in various ways, and to population growth.” Immigration, he says, is “one of the most powerful tools in the demographic toolkit as societies respond to the very different demography of the twenty-first century.”

It’s odd, though, that climate change is mentioned so fleetingly in a book about demographic ebbs and flows. I’m sure he doesn’t mean to, but Spoonley presents it as something millennials worry about – one of those quaint definitions of being a millennial  – rather than a looming apocalypse which will drive migration before it. Understanding this doesn’t require youth or activism. It requires not being dead for the last twenty years. It requires being able to read a newspaper.

In the New York Times this year, environmental reporter Abrahm Lustgarten wrote, “New research suggests climate change will cause humans to move in unprecedented numbers… People are already beginning to flee. In Southeast Asia, where increasingly unpredictable monsoon rainfall and drought have made farming more difficult, the World Bank points to more than eight million people who have moved toward the Middle East, Europe and North America. In the African Sahel, millions of rural people have been streaming toward the coasts and the cities amid drought and widespread crop failures. Should the flight away from hot climates reach the scale that current research suggests is likely, it will amount to a vast remapping of the world’s populations.”

New Zealand has always been the lucky country, and our luck has held like a rubber band aching to ping – holding the door closed against Covid. But, says the prof, the new New Zealand, post-Covid, even post-Boomer, risks becoming a place that millennials and post-millennials won’t want to live in. We need our politicians to grasp these demographic issues, to explain them to all of us, to use them to make decisions, he argues. It won’t be easy. We need new economic models, new ways of thinking, and, sorry – delayed super. Or it will be poor-and-old New Zealand, nothing new about it, with all the problems of an aging population – rural poverty, urban decay, nasty, politicised immigration debates – and a chronic shortage of workers.

The New New Zealand by Paul Spoonley (Massey University Press, $39.99) is available in bookstores nationwide.

* ReadingRoom reviews appear with the support of Creative New Zealand *

As art director of North & South, Jenny Nicholls won more national awards than any living magazine or newspaper designer in New Zealand. She is also a science writer.

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