• Paul Spoonley MUP book.
  • Paul Spoonley.

More boomers, fewer babies – our population transforms

Massey Unviersity

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 in August by Massey University Press), Professor Spoonley, who is based in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Massey’s Auckland, Albany campus, examines the implications of these influences on our population. His book 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 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.”

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. 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.

Professor Spoonley thinks the policy and economic implications of these statistics should be addressed with greater urgency. “More and more people keep working past the age of 65, and 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, demographer and author of nearly 30 books is the changing nature of family. “The contemporary family is now an enormously varied institution. Very often our policies still revolve around a notion of 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.”

Scandinavian nations offer promising models of successful population policies, he says. They 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 older people, providing 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 generations is good for everybody,” says Professor Spoonley.

Immigration tap turned off

The major source of population growth in the last decade has been immigration. In the 12 months to June 2020 New Zealand had the highest net gain from immigration 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?”

He hopes his new book will improve the evidence base for public discussion and provide a call to action. Read ’10 Questions with Paul Spoonley’ on the Massey University Press website. https://www.masseypress.ac.nz/news/2020/august/10-questions-with-paul-spoonley/



Issue 113 September 2020