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Our population: where are we heading, and why?

By Kevin McCracken - posted Thursday, 16 August 2018

Australia reached a demographic milestone last week with the national population clock ticking over the 25 million mark. Whether this was a positive milestone or, rather, a 'millstone' however depends on to whom you talk;

The 25 million total came up several years earlier than a number of previous sets of population projections had suggested. For some the rapid population growth of recent years has been a welcomed development, in particular with respect to the large infusion of young migrants into the population and the slowing down of population ageing and the associated so-called old-age dependency ratio (i.e. the number of people aged 15-64 for every person over 65).

This was very much the view of immigration of the governor of the Reserve Bank, Dr Philip Lowe, who was reported as saying that we are 'young and better off" for it than most advanced economies. The chief of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, James Pearson, was similarly very positive about the large migration inflow, suggesting that without it we would become a declining economic power and lose global influence.


What basically hasn't been said though is where the high migration advocates see us going over the long haul. Do they see population growth as a good thing that should just keep on going forever? Or do they concede that in a finite world this is really impossible, and a dangerous path. If the latter, what do they have in mind? – 50 million? 70 million? Or …?

Nothing much has been said about the population size Australia could comfortably support. If we indeed were to grow to 50+ million as some suggest would the quality of life for Australians improve commensurately?

Has anyone in the "high immigration" tent perhaps wondered whether the current disastrous drought across much of southeastern Australia might not presage early signs of climate change and compromising of the country's future physical "carrying capacity"

A lot is said about a larger population being necessary for economic growth? But is that the only drumbeat to which a civilised society should march? What about residential liveability, social cohesion and inclusion, quality of life, environmental quality, etc?

We are told Sydney and Melbourne are on the path (principally through immigration) to population sizes of around 8 million. How likely is it that an addition of 3 million people to both cities will make them better places to live? Some people undeniably look forward to those mega-city developments. But many certainly do not.

The latter however, are almost certainly not going to get much of a say in this. Sydney and Melbourne 8 million are probably coming, like it or not.


When one, for example, can walk as fast as car traffic in some parts of Sydney and Melbourne in morning and evening peak hours something is wrong. Efforts to improve traffic infrastructure are welcome. These will help some people, but residents of many areas in our two major cities realistically are not going to get much in the way of such benefits.

To conclude on a different but related note, when talking about old-age dependency ratios (a central theme in the large, youthful immigration intake argument) let us not slip into the thinking that everyone aged 65 and over is frail and unproductive and a drain on national resources.

It is very easy to forget the non-work contributions seniors make to national well-being through volunteering, investments, and the like. Both state and federal coffers benefit greatly from the savings deriving from family and community care activities that would otherwise fall upon government.

More elderly-friendly employment policies and procedures would add to these contributions. Australians are living longer and with more years in full health. Many seniors would like to put some of this time into flexible, part-time employment opportunities if they were made possible. Workforce participation rates could very easily be lifted.

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About the Author

Dr Kevin McCracken is an honorary fellow at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. He is co-author of Global Health: An Introduction to Current and Future Trends, Routledge, 2017 (2nd edition).

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