• aged care;
  • ageing;
  • demographic change


  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. Methods and data
  4. Changing population growth
  5. Changing population composition
  6. Population distribution
  7. Public discussion on population
  8. Conclusion
  9. References

Populations are in a constant state of change, but unlike many aspects of economic, political and social change that can be sudden, demographic change is usually gradual and cumulative. Accordingly, demographic change is often overlooked by commentators and policy-makers and can ‘creep up’ on them. Australia's population change is especially dynamic because international migration has been consistently more significant than in other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries over the entire postwar period. Accordingly, in 2011, half of the number of people living in Australia consists of migrants or Australia-born children from migrants, compared with 20% in the USA, for example. Out of OECD countries for which more than 50 years of data are available, Australia's population growth is the second fastest since World War II due to international migration and a total fertility rate close to replacement level [1, 2]. Yet this high rate of growth is only part of the demographic transformation that has occurred. The most dramatic changes have been in the composition of the population and these shifts have been both a cause and consequence of the substantial economic and social changes that have swept across Australia over this period.

One of the most significant demographic shifts has been a significant ageing of the population, a process that is graphically evident in Figure 1, which overlays the age–sex composition of the Australian population in 1981 and 2011. Ageing is a universal characteristic of all national populations [3]. However, in OECD countries, it has become not only the dominant contemporary demographic feature, but also an issue of central economic and social concern:

Over the next couple of decades nothing will impact OECD economies more profoundly than demographic trends and, chief among them, ageing [4].


Figure 1. Australia: Age-sex distribution, 1981 and 2011.

Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics, unpublished data, 1981 and 2011 censuses.

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In Australia, similar sentiments have been expressed by the Department of Treasury [5-7] in their three-yearly Intergenerational Reports. Yet the increase in the significance of ageing in Australia was anticipated and reported much earlier. In particular, the publication of Howe's [8] Towards an Older Australia and the launch of the Australian Journal on Ageing in 1982 marked the beginning of a new awareness of the rapid growth of the older population and an analysis of the 1981 population census results devoted a chapter to the ‘Greying of Australia’ [9].

This paper summarises and analyses the major changes that have occurred in the Australian population between the 1981 and 2011 population censuses over the period since the launch of the Australian Journal on Ageing. The first section focuses on the pattern of population growth and the changing patterns of mortality, fertility and international migration, which have not only contributed to changing levels of population growth but have also impacted on both the changing composition and distribution of the population. In the second section, changes in the composition of the population are considered with respect to ageing, ethnicity and households. Third, changes in population spatial distribution are analysed. Finally, some of the implications of these changes for national population policy are examined and discussed briefly.

Methods and data

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. Methods and data
  4. Changing population growth
  5. Changing population composition
  6. Population distribution
  7. Public discussion on population
  8. Conclusion
  9. References

This paper relies mainly upon population census and immigration data to reflect demographic change. The quinquennial Australian census is one of the most accurate in the world with an underenumeration of only 1.7% in 2011 and an array of questions that facilitate comprehensive analysis of the changing patterns of growth in, and characteristics and location of, the Australian older population [10]. Similarly, international data are excellent [11]. There is, however, some potential for misinterpretation in a few areas of population dynamics that need to be briefly mentioned here. For example, census data on the indigenous population are on the basis of self-identification and are subject to error, which may vary between censuses. Similarly, the calculation of net migration is becoming increasingly complex in Australia with the increasing significance of temporary migration.

Changing population growth

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. Methods and data
  4. Changing population growth
  5. Changing population composition
  6. Population distribution
  7. Public discussion on population
  8. Conclusion
  9. References

The total population increased from 14.6 to 21.5 million over the 1981–2011 period. Table 1 shows that the rate of growth varied between 1.61% per annum in 2006–2011 to 1.05% in 1991–1996. These rates of growth are high by high-income country standards, although somewhat slower than in the heyday of rapid growth in the early postwar decades [12]. Table 1 also shows that in every intercensal period since 1981, the growth rate of the 65+ population has considerably outpaced that of the total population with growth rates varying between almost 3% per annum in 1986–1991 and 2% in 1996–2001. The rates for the older-old 75+ population have been even greater except for the most recent period. Hence while the total population increased by 47.6% between 1981 and 2011, the 65+ more than doubled (110.7%) and the 75+ almost trebled (171.4%).

Table 1. Australia: Population by age and growth rate, 1981–2011
YearTotal PopulationGrowth Rate65+Growth Rate of 65+75+Growth Rate of 75+
Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics censuses, unpublished data, 1981–2011.
198114 576 349 1 429 393 510 209 
198615 602 0861.371 646 7022.87625 7234.17
199116 847 3101.551 907 1562.98754 1763.80
199617 752 8291.052 150 8952.43892 7003.43
200118 769 2491.122 370 8781.971 090 7084.09
200619 855 2921.132 644 3682.211 270 9363.11
201121 507 7191.613 012 2902.641 384 8831.73

In order to understand the dynamics of overall population growth and the reasons why the older population has grown even faster since 1981, it is necessary to examine the processes of population change. Figure 2 shows the relative contributions of natural increase (births minus deaths) and net migration (immigrants minus emigrants). It will be noticed that the contribution of natural increase has remained relatively stable over the period adding around 100 000 persons net each year. Net migration, on the other hand, has been much more volatile, fluctuating with national economic trends and shifts in government policy. For example, the net migration gain spiked in 2008–2009, which was possibly influenced by a new method of estimating net migration introduced by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). We will now turn to examining trends in each of the demographic processes impinging on national population growth separately.


Figure 2. Australia: Total population growth showing the natural increase and net migration components, 1981–2012.

Source: [Australian Bureau of Statistics, unpublished data, [13]].

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First, with respect to mortality, Figure 3 shows the steep increase in life expectancy among Australians over the last century. In the period since World War II, life expectancy has increased by 12.6 years for male and 12.9 years for female Australians. Between 1981 and 2011, the increase in life expectancy was 8.3 years for men and 5.8 for women. Hence more Australians are surviving the younger years than ever before. However, perhaps the biggest change has come in the older ages. Prior to 1970 we had added very few years of extra life to Australians aged 50 years or more, despite a greater likelihood to reach the age of 50. Hence, Table 2 shows that between 1901 and 1970 life expectancy increased by only 1.8 years for Australians aged 50. The increase was greater for women (4.6 years) because of the huge reduction in pregnancy/childbirth-related deaths. However the table shows that there has since been a dramatic change with 8.5 years being added to the life expectancy of Australian men aged 50 between 1970 and 2010 and 7.1 years to the life expectancy of Australian women of that age. Between 1981 and 2011, the increases were 6.8 years for men and 4.8 for women. This massive change was not anticipated by commentators at the time [14, 15] and was achieved through medical breakthroughs such as better diagnosis of heart conditions, bypass operations and the development of intensive care units. In addition, major improvements in lifestyle through better diet, reduced smoking and safer cars have also had an impact. As a result, not only are more Australians surviving to retirement age, but more are having an extended period of retirement. This is contributing significantly to the growth of our older population.


Figure 3. Australia: Expectation of life at birth, 1870–2011.

Source: [9] [16].

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Table 2. Australia: Expectation of life at age 50, 1901–1910, 1970–72, 1981 and 2011
Source [16-18].

The greater survival of Australians into older age may not however have produced an older generation which is healthier than previous generations. While we lack definitive data in Australia, Table 3 shows that ABS sample surveys of self-reported health indicates that the proportion of older Australians aged over 65 years reporting some form of disability increased by 8 percentage points between 1981 and 2009. This might indicate that medical breakthroughs are ‘rescuing older Australians from death’, but they are then surviving with some disability or chronic ailment. The implications for health services, workforce participation, volunteering and the day-to-day lives of people are considerable.

Table 3. Proportion of the population with disabilities, 1981–2009
Age groupPercent
Source [19, 20].
All people13.215.618.018.6

The ABS in Australia anticipates that life expectancy in Australia will continue to increase [21]. However, some commentators have questioned this as the onset of the global obesity epidemic and its impacts on health may be expected to slow these past substantial increases in longevity [22]. It has been suggested that the link between poor health and obesity will mean that recent substantial increases in life expectancy among older Australians will not continue. Figure 4 shows that one of the most striking changes in health risk behaviour in the Australian population since 1980 has been an increase in the proportion who are overweight or obese. Moreover, in the context of considering ageing, it is interesting to note in Figure 5 that baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) have high levels of overweight and obesity and significantly higher than the current 65+ population when they were the same age [23]. If these patterns continue this will lead to greatly increased morbidity, chronic diseases and disability among older Australians [24]. Moreover, it has been shown that Generation X (those born between 1965 and 1981) has higher levels of obesity than baby boomers had at the same age [25].


Figure 4. Australia: Adults in normal, overweight and obese body mass index categories, based on self reported height and weight, 1980–2011/2012.

Capital cities and urban areas only in 1980.

Source: [Australian Bureau of Statistics, unpublished data, [26, 27]].

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Figure 5. Australia: Proportion of persons who were overweight or obesea by age and sex, 2011–2012.

aBased on body mass index for persons whose height and weight was measured.

Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australian Bureau of Statistics, unpublished data, 2012 [26, 27].

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Changing fertility trends have had a major impact on the growth and ageing of Australia's population. Figure 6 illustrates trends in Australia's total fertility rate (TFR)1 over the last century and shows that Australian fertility began to decline in the 1870s and fell more or less continuously until 1946 when there was an upturn. The postwar baby boom saw total fertility levels exceed 3.5 for almost two decades. This was followed by a precipitous decline in fertility to below 2. Since the 1970s, fertility has been fluctuating around 1.8 and 1.9. Hence there has been only a small change in the TFR between 1.935 in 1981 and 1.884 in 2011. The high fertility of the two decades following World War II had a massive impact on Australia's postwar demography. The baby boomers are now poised to enter the older age groups, causing significant growth in Australia's older population over the next two decades.


Figure 6. Total fertility rate Australia, 1860–2011.

Source: [28].

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The demography of few countries has been as strongly affected by international migration as Australia. Figure 2 demonstrates that net migration on average has contributed around half of Australia's population growth over the last 30 years. However, its impact has gone far beyond a numerical one with one of the major shifts being an increase in diversity. Figure 7 demonstrates the diversity of the Australian permanent settler intake with the increasing Asia, Pacific, Middle Eastern and African groups. This has resulted in Australia becoming one of the most diverse nations in the OECD. Table 4 compares some cultural indicators at the 1981 and 2011 population censuses and shows the increase in the proportion of Australians who are migrants and the diversity in language and religion.


Figure 7. Australia: Settler arrivals by region of last residence, 1947–2011.

Source: DIMIA (Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (Australia) ), Australian Immigration: Consolidated Statistics [29];DIAC DIAC (Department of Immigration and Citizenship), Immigration Update, various issues [30]; DIAC, unpublished data.

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Table 4. Cultural indicators, 1981 and 2011
  1. a

    1986 census.

Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics, unpublished data, 1981, 1986 and 2011 censuses. na, not applicable; NES, non-English speaking; OS, overseas.
Overseas-born (%)20.626.1
Australia-born with at least one parent OS-born (%)25.027.6
NES-born (%)11.016.6
British/Australian ancestry (first response)a (%)58.565.1
Non-Christian religion (%)1.87.9
OS-born not able to speak English well or not at all (%)10.29.8
OS-born who speak language other than English at home (%)40.753.0
Asian ancestry (first response)a (%)na10.6

One dimension of the increased cultural diversity in Australia's population over the 1981–2011 period has been within the nation's older population. In 1981, some 24.4% of the Australian aged were born overseas, 9.8% in Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) countries. However, by 2011 this proportion had increased to 35.9 and 21.7%, respectively. Table 5 shows that while the Australia-born population aged 65+ increased by 68.1%, the overseas-born almost trebled (191.5%), while CALD older people increased by 339.5% – five times that of the Australia-born. The diversification of the Australian older population is one of the most significant dimensions of Australia's ageing population.

Table 5. Australia: Birthplace by Age 65+, 1981, 2006 and 2011
BirthplaceAged 65+ yearsPercent change 1981–2011
Total populationNumberPercent
Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 1981 census, one percent sample; ABS, unpublished data, 2011 censuses. At Sea, born at sea; Inad Des, inadequately described; MES, mainly English speaking; minus NS, minus not stated; Nec, not elsewhere classified; NES, non-English speaking.
Australia11 462 2001 063 30075.6 
Overseas-born2 974 300344 00024.4 
MES1 381 900206 20014.7 
NES1 592 400137 8009.8 
Total (minus NS, Inad Des, At Sea, Nec)14 436 5001 407 300100.0 
Australia15 017 8461 787 00664.168.1
Overseas-born5 284 3871 002 92135.9191.5
MES1 913 363397 28614.292.7
NES3 371 024605 63521.7339.5
Total (minus NS, Inad Des, At Sea, Nec)20 302 2332 789 927100.098.2

One important change in Australian immigration in recent decades has been the greatly increased importance of non-permanent movements, especially those involving workers and students. In 1981 the Australian immigration program focused almost entirely on permanent settlement and eschewed temporary worker migration. At the end of 2011, it was estimated that there were 1.05 million persons temporarily in Australia [31] – equivalent to 4.7% of the total population. These are primarily made up of overseas students (361 369 in September 2011), Temporary Business (Long Stay – 457) migrants (140 769), and Working Holiday Makers (130 612) as well as short-term visitors.

Changing population composition

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. Methods and data
  4. Changing population growth
  5. Changing population composition
  6. Population distribution
  7. Public discussion on population
  8. Conclusion
  9. References

The processes described earlier have not only reshaped the size of the Australian population over the last three decades, but produced some profound changes in its composition. Increased multicultural diversity has already been demonstrated, but perhaps the most discussed element of change has been ageing. As Figure 1 dramatically attests, there has been a major shift, which has meant the proportion of the national population aged less than 35 has decreased (from 58.6 in 1981 to 46.4 in 2011) while those older increased their share from 41.4 to 53.6%. Most focus has been on the aged 65 years or more whose numbers almost doubled from 1.43 million in 1981 to 3.01 million in 2011 and their proportion of the population increased from 9.8 to 14.0%. The 65+ population grew more than twice as fast as the total population – 110.7 compared with 47.6% change. All three demographic processes discussed – mortality, fertility and migration – have contributed to these patterns:

Lowered mortality has an impact through increased life expectancy, especially at older ages. Low fertility has meant the young population is growing more slowly than in the past. While immigrants are selectively drawn from the young working ages, immigrants themselves age and contribute to the growth of the older population.

The large baby boom cohort born during the high-fertility postwar years has had a large impact on Australia's demography throughout their lives, contributing to a ‘younging’ of the national age structure when they were children and its ageing as they have ‘moved up’ the age pyramid. Their impact is still considerable, with Australian census figures showing they make up 25.4% of the total population in 2011 and 36% of the workforce (compared with 33.6 and 52.5% in 1981).

The passage of the baby boom into the 65+ years age group over the next two decades will produce an unprecedented ageing of the national population. The demography of this ageing will have four major dimensions using the 2008 median projections [21]:

  • The population aged 65+ will increase by 86% between 2011 and 2031.
  • The percentage aged 65+ will increase from 13.8 to 19.9%.
  • The characteristics of Australia's older population will change as baby boomers replace the pre-war generation in their age.
  • The spatial distribution of the older population will change as baby boomers replace the pre-war generation.

This change presents considerable challenges, with the ratio of workers to dependants set to decline and the demand for health services, age support pensions and eventually aged care services set to increase significantly.

Another major transformation that has occurred over the last three decades has been in the way in which Australians group themselves into households. The full degree of change in the diversity in Australian households cannot be fully captured by census data, but we note the following:

  • 1.
    There has been a consistent decline in the average size of Australian households from 3.0 to 2.6 in 2001. However, since then there has been relative stability with a size of 2.6 recorded in 2011. This reduction in size has been a function of several factors:
    • Younger people have left home at an early age to set up new households, especially during times of relatively full employment;
    • Older people have increasingly remained in independent living situations as the century has progressed, with smaller proportions going to live with their children or enter aged care institutions;
    • Increasing levels of divorce and separation have led to splitting of households; and
    • Other fluctuations in the economy, the cost of housing and lending interest rates may also have contributed.

This decline in household size has meant that the rate of increase in the number of households has outpaced that in the population with significant implications for the provision of services. The recent stabilisation in household size is due to a reduction in the rate of household formation in most age groups [32].

  • 2.
    Another important shift has come in household composition with an increasing diversification of living arrangements being one of the key changes of the 1981–2011 period. Some of these shifts such as the growth of same-sex partnerships, blended families, and multigenerational families cannot be captured in the census data, but Figure 8 indicates some important shifts. Non-family households (group and single-person households) have been among the most rapidly growing while single-parent families have more than doubled. In 1981, 47.1% of households had only one or two persons, but by 2011 this had increased to 58.3. Couple families with dependent children have been one of the slowest household types although much Australian planning is aimed dominantly at this stereotypical ‘average’ household [1].

Figure 8. Australia: Change in the number of families/households, 1986–2011.

Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics censuses, unpublished data.

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One of the most important elements in Australia's demography is the Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander population. Changes in this group over the 1981–2011 period are shown in Table 6. There are substantial difficulties in the counting of the indigenous population. This is partly associated with the marginal circumstances in which many live, leading to them being missed in censuses. This problem has been overcome to a degree in recent censuses through the ABS employing special procedures, which undoubtedly have led to successively greater proportions of the population being counted. A greater problem relates to variations between censuses in the extent to which people do or do not identify themselves as Aboriginal in the census. Increased readiness to identify oneself as Aboriginal, especially following The Apology undoubtedly is a major factor in the recent rapid growth. It is apparent from Table 6 that the Aboriginal population differs from their non-Aboriginal counterparts with higher mortality and fertility rates resulting in a more rapid natural increase rate and a very young age structure. It is notable that, despite some improvement, mortality rates remain much higher than the Australian average. Aboriginal people are also much more represented in regional areas than the non-Aboriginal population.

Table 6. Indigenous status population, 1981 and 2011
Number159 897548 370
Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics, unpublished data, 1981 and 2011 Censuses.
% of total1.102.68
Growth rate−0.103.80
Total fertility rate3.322.74
Life expectancy  
Males4967.2 (2005–2007)
Females5672.9 (2005–2007)
Living in capitals (%)22.432.3
Age less than 15 (%)44.735.9
Aged 65+ (%)2.93.8

Population distribution

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. Methods and data
  4. Changing population growth
  5. Changing population composition
  6. Population distribution
  7. Public discussion on population
  8. Conclusion
  9. References

Australia has a very distinctive population distribution and the broad outlines of that distribution have changed little over the last century [12]. Figure 9 depicts the geographic centre of gravity of the Australian population in 1981 and 2011 and only a small movement northward is apparent. This reflects the fact that Queensland has been the fastest growing state over this period. Nevertheless, it is apparent from Table 7 that there have been only minor changes in the structure of Australia's population distribution. Australia is a strongly urbanised country with more than two-thirds of the population living in cities. There has been a small increase in the proportion living in urban areas over the last three decades. In fact there has been a similar rate of growth between capital city and regional populations over this period. However, this has masked some important shifts in the detail of the Australian population distribution.


Figure 9. Australia: Weighted population centre, 1981 and 2011.

Source: Australian censuses, unpublished data, 1981 and 2011.

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Table 7. Distribution of Australia-born and overseas-born population between major urban, other urban and rural areas, 1947–2011
  1. Birthplace not stated not included.

Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics censuses, 1947–2011, unpublished data.
Major urban3 390 59149.77 627 19757.78 579 87561.09 588 07964.0
Other urban1 263 72418.53 485 12526.43 530 40725.13 463 33823.1
Rural2 173 06831.82 108 24215.91 958 71113.91 934 14512.9
Total6 827 383100.013 220 564100.014 068 993100.014 985 562100.0
Major urban453 36861.83 126 26080.03 654 92082.84 514 72685.5
Other urban98 82413.5489 55012.5494 75211.2497 1849.4
Rural181 18024.7290 2697.4264 9056.0268 2185.1
Total733 372100.03 906 079100.04 414 577100.05 280 128100.0
 Percent Change  
Major urban153.0182.811.8706.2895.823.5  
Other urban179.4174.1−1.9400.6403.10.5  

First, the balance between states and territories has changed. In the early postwar years the southeastern part of the country was the most rapidly growing due to the fast pace of industrial development. However, since 1981 Queensland and Western Australia have grown fastest, so that the proportion of the national population living in the southeastern states declined from 74.7% in 1981 to 68.5% in 2011.

The shift of population from non-metropolitan to metropolitan areas has been an important feature of Australia's postwar demography. Quantifying the change has been made difficult by definitional problems but it is apparent from Table 7 that there has been a slight increase in urbanisation over the 1981–2011 period. Figure 10 shows that in fact the proportion of the national population living in the capital cities declined slightly between 1971 and 1996, but thereafter began to increase. The proportion of the population living in capital cities has especially increased since 2006 concurrent with rapid population growth and high levels of immigration.


Figure 10. Australia: Percentage of population living in capital cities, 1972–2011.

Source: [33].

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Within non-metropolitan areas there have been contrasting patterns of population growth between different regions. Areas of population growth are strongly concentrated in:

  • the areas surrounding metropolitan areas;
  • along the well-watered east coast and southwest coast;
  • some resort and retirement areas;
  • some regional centres;
  • along the Hume Highway linking Sydney and Melbourne; and
  • some relatively remote areas, especially those with growing mining activities, tourism and significant indigenous populations.

On the other hand, there is also a concentration of the areas experiencing population decline:

  • the dry farming areas of the wheat-sheep belt, such as in western Victoria, extending through central-western New South Wales and Queensland; the southeast, Eyre Peninsula and mid north of South Australia; and the wheat-sheep belt of Western Australia;
  • many pastoral areas in central Australia;
  • certain mining areas such as Broken Hill; and
  • declining industrial cities such as Whyalla in South Australia.

Finally, within capital cities there have been some interesting changes in population distribution. For most of the postwar period increasing levels of car ownership in postwar Australia fostered the lateral extension of low-density suburbs in Australia's large metropolitan areas. For the early postwar decades the bulk of population growth in major cities occurred in the outer suburbs. However, population growth is increasingly occurring in older built-up areas of the major cities, encouraged by both planning policy and changing preferences.

Public discussion on population

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. Methods and data
  4. Changing population growth
  5. Changing population composition
  6. Population distribution
  7. Public discussion on population
  8. Conclusion
  9. References

Population issues have waxed and waned in Australian public discussion since Federation [34] and this has certainly been the case during the 1981–2011 period. In 1981, the National Population Inquiry [14, 15] had been recently released giving unprecedented detailed analysis of Australian population trends and issues. The 1980s saw a revival of concern about population and environment – an issue that had been largely quiet since the 1920s. A questioning of the pressures that population growth was putting on the environment intensified in the 1980s [35, 36] and there were several major investigations into population and environment. The first was the inquiry into Population Issues and Australia's Future: Environment, Economy and Society undertaken by the Population Issues Committee of the National Population Council [37, 38]. The Council was asked by the Prime Minister to ‘examine all pertinent matters – including the impact of population increase on the economy, environment, human service delivery, infrastructure, social equity and international obligations’ [37]. The report produced by the Committee argued that Australia was at a crossroads with respect to its population and called for the development of a population policy that seeks to influence and respond to population change, to advance economic progress, ecological integrity, social justice and responsible international involvement. The report advocated strongly for a more holistic approach to considerations of population, which balanced economic, environment and social considerations. It argued that environmental considerations made it necessary to adopt a precautionary approach to population and to move towards a more sustainable future. Two other key documents from the 1990s were reports from the Australian Academy of Science [39] and the Commonwealth House of Representatives Standing Committee on Long Term Strategies Inquiry Into Australia's Carrying Capacity [40]. All these argued that Australia should move towards the development of a comprehensive population policy which was both proactive and responsive. Unfortunately they had little impact.

The last decade has seen a strengthening of the debate [1] [41-48]. This reached a peak in the period leading up to the 2010 Federal Election and the incoming government established a Ministry and Department of Population for the first time. However, there have been no moves towards a comprehensive analysis of population and its implications for Australia's economy, society, environment and security, and related policy. The recent population debate in Australia has had a number of distinctive features:

  • Population has been seen as synonymous with immigration and the other dimensions of population change are largely ignored.
  • Environmental impacts are a much more important element in the immigration/population debate in Australia than elsewhere in North America or Europe [36, 46].
  • The debate has been strongly polarised, between continued rapid population growth on the one hand and little or no growth on the other.
  • The sides in the debate are not drawn along traditional, party political, lines. There are both anti-growth and pro-growth elements on both sides of politics.
  • There is strong continuity with the past in that issues of the size of the future population and optimum population dominate public discussion.
  • Another element of continuity is the revival of interest in population distribution issues, regional development and decentralisation.
  • The debate has generally been populist in nature and too often characterised by misinformation, self-interest and bigotry.
  • While the debate has been overwhelmingly on numbers, population growth and the role of immigration there also have been some discussions regarding fertility. This debate culminated in the federal government introducing a baby bonus and a number of family friendly initiatives in an effort to forestall further fertility decline [49].


  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. Methods and data
  4. Changing population growth
  5. Changing population composition
  6. Population distribution
  7. Public discussion on population
  8. Conclusion
  9. References

Australia's population has experienced profound change since the Australian Journal on Ageing was launched in February 1982. Some of these changes were anticipated in contemporary demographic analyses [9, 14], but others have surprised demographers. The former includes the growth of the older population outpacing that of the total population as well as increasing ethnic and household diversity. However, changes in population growth, composition and distribution are both caused by and influence economic, social, political and environmental processes and are difficult to anticipate. Some elements such as changes in the numbers and characteristics of the older population are readily projected with a high degree of confidence. Others, such as population growth, distribution and migration levels are more difficult. It is important, however that public discussions and policy makers be informed by detailed understanding of evolving processes and trends in population.

  1. 1

    The TFR can be defined as: the average number of children that would be born alive to a woman during her lifetime if she were to pass through all her child-bearing years conforming to the age-specific fertility rates of a given year.


  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. Methods and data
  4. Changing population growth
  5. Changing population composition
  6. Population distribution
  7. Public discussion on population
  8. Conclusion
  9. References
  • 1
    Hugo GJ. Demographic change and liveability panel report, 2010. Report commissioned by the Hon. Tony Burke MP, Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities. December, 2010.
  • 2
    Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). International migration outlook 2013, OECD, 2013.
  • 3
    United Nations. World Population Prospects: The 2012 Revision. New York: United Nations, 2013.
  • 4
    Cotis J. Challenges of demographics, 2005. Paper presented to the policy network spring retreat, Warren House, Surrey, United Kingdom, 11-12 March, 2005.
  • 5
    Department of Treasury. Intergenerational Report 2002-03, 2002-03 Budget Paper No. 5. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia, 2002.
  • 6
    Department of Treasury. Intergenerational Report 2007. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia, 2007.
  • 7
    Department of Treasury. Australia to 2050: Future challenges. Intergenerational report circulated by the Treasurer of the Commonwealth of Australia, 2010 January, 2010.
  • 8
    Howe AL , ed. Towards An Older Australia. Queensland: University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia, 1981.
  • 9
    Hugo GJ. Australia's Changing Population: Trends and Implications. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1986.
  • 10
    Hugo GJ. Using census data: An Australian example. In: Stimson RJ , ed. Handbook for Spatially Integrated Social Science Research Methodology. 2013: Edward Elgar (forthcoming).
  • 11
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