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Australia's population

By Peter Curson - posted Tuesday, 29 October 2013


Over the last year Australia’s population increased by almost 400,000 people and now stands above 23 million. Overseas migration has contributed most of this population increase and Australia’s fertility continues to remain at a fairly low level. But what does the future hold and what population trends will come to dominate the next few decades?

First the good news.

Australians are generally living longer and enjoying much healthier lives than ever before and there seems little doubt that Australia’s population will continue to grow. Infant and child mortality are at historic low levels and life expectancy has never been higher.

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Now the not so good news. Increasing longevity and low fertility, not to mention totally unacceptable obesity and diabetes rates, will pose countless challenges for policymakers in the future. Australia today ranks among the fattest nations in the developed world and at least 14 million Australians are overweight or obese. In addition possibly more than 1 million Australians suffer from diabetes.

Just imagine that within 40 years, Australia may well have a total population of more than 35 million with more than 6 million aged over 65 including more than 2 million aged over 80. Critically, within 40 years there may well be as many Australians aged over 65 as there are working age adults and perhaps 70 percent of the total population will be regarded as obese with at least 50 percent overweight.

On the local scene, perhaps as many as seven million may be squeezed into the Sydney metropolitan area. What are the implications of such changes? What will such an Australia be like? Already there are hints of the decline of  suburban living and the loss of the traditional backyard and what Dick Smith referred to as ‘free-ranging’ kids. Will high density living take over and we will all become like elderly over- weight ‘battery hens’ competing with younger people for small apartments in row after row of austere ten story unit blocks above shopping centres, and fighting to use the lifts, the roads and to fit into the seats on public transport?

Over the last few years there has been a spirited debate as to what Australia will be like and whether it will be able to support such population growth. Much of the debate has been emotionally charged, talking about vastly congested cities, lack of affordable housing, failing transport and agricultural systems, lack of jobs (many being offloaded off- shore) and even misery and deprivation. Surely if we are going to have a debate about Australia’s population then it should not be about sheer numbers and the fear of being physically and socially overwhelmed, but rather about redefining what ‘old’ and ‘retired’ really mean in the 21st century, about keeping so-called ‘old’ people in the workforce, about how Australia’s social, health and economic systems are going to cope with future population changes, about addressing the appalling obesity problem, about retaining Australia’s ‘best and brightest’, and about the positive contribution that migrants can make to all aspects of Australian life.

But unfortunately emotion rules the roost.

Almost daily we are deluged with comments about the need to limit immigration, about ‘stopping the boats’, about how the housing market will fail to cope, how our roads and streets will be choked, and how our environment and lifestyle will be changed forever. In such a context population growth has become ‘securitised’. For many, a larger older population automatically means insecurity, stress, unstainable growth and declining living standards. The answer put forward is, lower fertility and limited immigration, which will inevitably lead to smaller families and slower population growth. The downside, however, is increased ageing, a loss of skills and labour force pressures.

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And what about migration, what role will it play in the Australia of the future? Many countries have relied on net migration for many years to provide skilled labour as well as to provide people for the jobs no one else wants to do. An added plus has been the impact that young migrants have had on pushing up fertility levels in countries like the UK and Australia. There is also little doubt that immigration has enriched Australia’s economy and enhanced its quality of life.

Despite this, there is currently something of a backlash against current immigration levels and pressure to lower intake rates, particularly in light of the fact that the current number of students and others on temporary visas virtually matches the number of migrants seeking long-term settlement. And let’s not mention the ‘boat people’!  

We must also bear in mind that population projections in the past have often proved wrong. The 1920s and 1930s were full of predictions of rapidly declining birth rates threatening the viability and existence of Western societies. No one foresaw the post World War Two baby- boom, and almost miraculously in the 1950s many Western societies like Australia entered a major period of population growth bolstered by high migration rates.

And it is not that long ago that Paul Ehrlich preached of a possible demographic Armageddon if we didn’t control rampant population growth in the world. What happened? Well in most instances fertility began to fall in a spectacular fashion and while the developing world continued to grow there has so far been little evidence of cataclysmic doom.

Be all that as it may, there seems little doubt that Australia’s population will continue to increase and the recent slight resurgence in fertility and current immigration rates suggests a population of at least 35 million within 35-40 years.

Australia currently stands at a demographic crossroads. One road points towards increased immigration, higher fertility and moderately high population growth. The other, looks down a long path to low fertility, low immigration rates and slow population growth marked by rapid ageing. Which road Australia decides to follow, remains to be seen.

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About the Author

Peter Curson is Emeritus Professor of Population and Health in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Macquarie University.

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