From the Exosphere
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From the Exosphere

Demography and Aotearoa: What lies underneath

Authored by Kevin Jenkins, originally published in Kia Ora India Vol 3, Issue 4, on 13 April 2022.

Among the various things ending in “–ographer” that I’m not, I’m not a demographer. But I am fascinated about what demographic trends can tell us about economic and social wellbeing.

Recently I asked some of my smart data science colleagues to update me on notable demographic trends in Aotearoa, and also what these trends might signify and what might underlie them. One of the key trends I was pointed to was in our fertility rate.

Digging deeper

It’s easy to just read the headlines about trends and miss the real and sometimes quite different stories that underlie them.

We see this often in everyday reporting of perceived successes and shortfalls. For example, reports about lower COVID-19 vaccination rates among Māori usually don’t mention that Māori are a younger population and that of course younger adults weren’t initially targeted for vaccination.

So, bearing in mind the need to go beyond the headlines, what’s going on behind New Zealand’s declining fertility rate?

A year ago Stats NZ announced that 2020 had seen the lowest ever recorded birth rate for Aotearoa (“New Zealand’s birth rate lowest on record, deaths drop in 2020”, 18 February 2021, Stats NZ website). The rate had been stable for three decades up to 2012, but then it began to fall away.

So is this news good, bad, or indifferent? I asked Marianna Pekar, Chief Data Scientist at my firm MartinJenkins, to shed some light. Marianna first pointed out that we need to think carefully about who to compare ourselves to.

Marianna Pekar, Chief Data Scientist, MartinJenkins

International comparisons: Going outside the Anglosphere

When we talk “international comparisons”, the usual suspects for policy developers in Aotearoa have been the Anglosphere — the UK, the US, Australia, and Canada. As the Stats NZ release noted, those countries have shown similar declines in birth rates — potentially encouraging us to shrug and say “Look, it’s happening everywhere.”

Marianna suggested to me that a more meaningful comparison would be with countries similar to New Zealand as judged by two key indicators — population size, and GDP per head of population. She did some work on the numbers and generated a comparator group that included Estonia, Lithuania, Czechia, Slovenia, Malta, Israel, and Cyprus.

Those are not countries to which New Zealand has traditionally seen itself as having ties — but interestingly, we have started to connect more with Israel and the Baltic states over the last decade, particularly in the digital and innovation spheres.

A comparison of birth rates with this mixed group from the Baltics, the Mediterranean, and Eastern Europe tells us something more arresting: whereas our birth rate had been markedly higher than most of those other countries between the late 1990s and 2012, our line (purple on the accompanying graph) has in the last decade been going downwards, and so that historical gap has now closed. Since 2012, Estonia and the Czech Republic have even seen their fertility rates steadily increase.

Comparison of NZ’s fertility rate (purple) with select comparator group
Source: Marianna Pekar, from OECD data

So what’s behind our drop in fertility rate?

International research has for some time pointed to one key factor as underlying declining birth rates: females in education. Women and girls who have better educational opportunities end up having fewer children and having children later.

But Marianna Pekar showed me some data that calls into question whether female education rates are continuing to drive declining fertility rates in Aotearoa.

Over the last decade the proportion of our population that didn’t finish high school has continued to fall, as part of a steady decades-long trend. But before we celebrate too much about that, we should note that, as Marianna showed me, New Zealand is doing worse than all of our select comparator group on this score.

So that doesn’t quite fit with a “women in education” explanation for the difference in fertility trends between Aotearoa and Estonia, Israel, and Co.

But if it’s not females in education, then what is the driver here? Marianna has a background in studying social wellbeing in Aotearoa, and one hypothesis she pointed me to is that it’s family poverty. Although the data for Aotearoa is a bit patchy, it indicates that our relative family poverty rate for some family types, for example single parent with at least one child, is worse than any of the countries in the comparator group except Lithuania (OECD, Income distribution database, 2021)

One element of this may be childcare costs. An OECD report concludes that New Zealand is one of the most expensive countries to raise pre-schoolers (OECD, “Society at a glance 2016”). If you look at childcare costs as a proportion of average family income, the data shows that New Zealand’s figures are higher than for all of the countries in our comparator group — that is, we’re the worst.

If it’s correct that family poverty is behind our declining fertility rate, then that adds a further concerning dimension to New Zealand’s appallingly high rates of child and family poverty. It may be that our falling birth rate over the last decade is not a sign of advances in the social position of women, as falling birth rates usually are, but is in fact a sign of the opposite, as women in Aotearoa grapple with high living costs, especially childcare, and shrinking opportunities.

Looking beyond our digital prints

The demographic trends I’ve highlighted here are of course only signs for investigation. But it seems to me that advances in data science have meant we’re now able to pick up a lot more of those signs than before.

I asked Marianna Pekar how we go about getting the most valuable insights out of the unprecedented volume of social data that’s now available. She warned about the “data deluge”, and the danger of casual assumptions and shallow hypotheses. She emphasised the need for appropriate qualitative research. She said:

“It’s tempting to look for explanations simply in the digital prints a society leaves behind. But we can only really discover significant insights when we are deliberate about including qualitative elements in any social research, so that we get to hear the voices of real people.”

It’s those real voices that our researchers and policy makers will need to hear as they seek to understand and address family poverty and other issues of social wellbeing in Aotearoa.

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