Population: will we just disappear?

Last week on ABC insiders, the discussion briefly turned to population policy and its role in the previous election. Kerry-Ann Walsh (former Herald-Sun journalist, now semi-retired and occasional opinion writer for Fairfax) chimed in with

Given what Australia’s needs are going into the future…and the fact that the fertility rate is so low, we will just disappear if we don’t have a healthy immigration level.

 And the fact that both sides were blathering during the election campaign and trying to hoodwink the Australian people is a disgrace.

 [DDET Read More]

The suggestion that the Australian population is about to disappear is fanciful. It is about as wrong as anything can be in politics – it is arithmetically wrong. I have run a few projections to illustrate the point. Others might get slightly different answers depending on various assumptions, such as the exact age distribution of mothers and how mortality will progress in the future.

TFR is the total fertility rate – meaning the number of children on average a woman will have (supposing she does not die before having them). A value slightly above 2 (in our case about 2.07) corresponds to replacement i.e. zero population growth. The history of the TFR in Australia is HERE. The TFR in Australia right now is about 1.97. The lowest it ever reached was 1.73 in 2001. Other countries have much lower TFRs. For instance, in Hong Kong the TFR is about 0.9, despite there being no 1-child policy as there is in the rest of China. A comparison of the rates in different countries is HERE.

The projections below all assume zero net overseas migration (i.e. about 220,000 migrants to balance the 220,000 permanent departures each year), starting from a population of about 22.1 million at the beginning of 2010.

  TFR 2130 2050
ZPG 2.07 24.5 25.4
Now 1.97 24.2 24.6
Lowest ever 1.73 23.5 22.9
Hong Kong 0.9 20.9 17.4


It doesn’t really look like we are going to “disappear” does it?! Even under the worst case 1.73 scenario, the population will still be higher in 2050 than it is now! I am afraid that it is journalists who are hoodwinking the Australian people on this issue, not the politicians.

Here is another scenario to consider. Suppose that we drop the baby bonus and that the TFR falls back to about 1.80 in response. Suppose that we also reduced net overseas migration to 100,000 per year (instead of 200,000 which is now talked about as a compromise figure). Remember, this means 320,000 migrants per year. It is not a closed door policy. Under these two policies – which represent the absolute extreme of what would be politically possible in terms of reducing population pressure –  does the population stagnate? No. It increases to 28.7 million in 2050 and continues to grow into the future.

There are reasons for running an immigration policy, but saving us from a seriously declining total population is not one of them. Neither is it any sort of solution to the ageing population problem, but that is for another post.

Cross posted from Fishing in the Bay.


Author: Chris J. Lloyd

Professor of Business Statistics, Melbourne Business School

2 thoughts on “Population: will we just disappear?”

  1. Great blog, Chris, but I’m not sure why you would regard anything that Kerrie-Ann Walsh as serious commentary. Complete puff-ball.


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