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The Surprising Truth

The Surprising Truth

New Zealand is more ethnically diverse, tolerant and unequal than ever before. Eight-seven per cent of us now live in cities, the regions are declining… and almost nothing is as it seems.

In the second of six special reports on the state of the nation celebrating 25 years of publication, New Zealand Geographic documents startling social change in Aotearoa. Despite being the last land mass to be inhabited, we are now one of the most ethnically diverse with 213 ethnic groups calling New Zealand home. And despite priding ourselves on our egalitarian society, the gap between rich and poor is growing faster here than almost any other OECD country.

“Understanding the implications of change is critical for the way we plan our society,” says editor James Frankham. “Our cities are growing fast, our population is getting older and more ethnically diverse. In the seven years between the last two censuses, more than half of our population growth occurred in Auckland. How do we accommodate this growth and the changes in how we live? And how do we ensure that declining regions maintain their provision of services?”

The New Us, a 34-page mega-feature in New Zealand Geographic, investigates the surprising changes in the structure of our society, and some of the issues those changes will present over the next 25 years.

In the mid 20th century, researchers considered the terms ‘household’ and ‘family’ to mean the same thing. Not any more. Fifty years ago, only one in ten households contained a person living alone. Today, it is one in four.

“This is a major sociological shift,” says Waikato University social researcher Mervyl McPherson. “It has an impact right across our society. It’s fundamental to how we plan our society. Single-person households once were transitory. Now they’re a lifestyle choice.”

But the single person household is only the beginning. The proportion of households containing couples with children has halved. We’re getting increasingly diverse in the way we live, and increasingly unequal. The top ten per cent of the population controls more than half of the nation’s wealth. The poorest half of the population have just five per cent.

“The egalitarian society of our imagination is eroding rapidly,” says Frankham. “And the great kiwi dream of a house and a happy family has also changed beyond recognition. We are more diverse and perhaps more interesting as a society than most of us would have suspected.”

“Adversity was the shared experience of any settler to this archipelago, whether Maori, Pakeha or recent migrant,” Greg Bruce writes in the feature. “Crossing large distances, often at great risk, giving up a life elsewhere for a new land and an unknown culture; it takes strength of character. Though we’re diverse and changing rapidly, this resilient spirit might be the one characteristic that binds all New Zealanders—a valuable quality for an uncertain future.”

Future issues in the magazine’s 25th year will focus on land and food, ice and climate, forests and conservation, seas and sustainability—the concerns that the nation will grapple with over the next quarter century. The March/April 2014 issue goes on sale nationwide today.


• 213 ethnic groups now live in New Zealand. One in eight New Zealanders is Asian, nearly a quarter of Aucklanders are Asian.

• One in four households now contains someone living alone (50 years ago it was one in 10). It’s estimated by 2033, there will be more people living alone than with someone else.

• Any city made up of more than 25 per cent ethnic migrants is known as ‘superdiverse’. Now at 40 per cent, Auckland is more diverse than Sydney, London or Los Angeles. The only city in the OECD with a higher proportion is Toronto.

• Auckland is now home to 13 times more people than at the beginning of the 1990s.

• The man-drought exists—there’s currently 91 men to every 100 women in the 25-49 age bracket. The discrepancy is more pronounced for highly educated men.

• As the baby boomers grow older, the structure of New Zealand’s population is growing top-heavy. However, the implications vary radically among ethnic groups—Maori and Pacific Island communities will have much larger working-age populations to support their aged than will their European or Asian counterparts. More than half of Maori will be under 30 in 2026.


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