Peaks and Troughs: COVID-19 population futures

Astrolabe Group
July 7, 2020

Last week, our Demographer Dr Kim Johnstone presented to members of the Planning Institute of Australia on population futures in a post-COVID world. Here she shares key messages from her talk.

With so much uncertainty in the world there is a lot of discussion about what this means for our population in the future. The great thing about demography is that we have a reliable framework to help us understand the future by looking at what has given us the population profile we see today.

Two things everyone should know

To predict the future, thinking like a demographer gives us a framework to understand what might happen. As I’ve written before, two things help us do this:

1. Only three things cause population change – births, deaths, and migration. Even when population responds to something like new housing, the reason we see change is because people move into the area (migration).

2. Age is critical – nothing is unaffected by age. As individuals we act differently when we are teenagers compared to when we are retired. Populations with older age profiles have different needs to ones where most people are young adults.

What past trends are important now?

For the past 10 years, the number of births and deaths every year across Australia has been remarkably stable – meaning natural increase (births minus deaths) has also been stable. In contrast, net overseas migration (the balance between people coming into or leaving Australia for 12 out of 16 months) has gone up and down. Net overseas migration has accounted for half or more of our population growth.

The impact has been different across Australia and this is important when thinking about the future. Greater Sydney, for example, typically has more people leave than arrive from elsewhere in Australia. Many regional towns have natural decline (more deaths than births).

In many places, overseas migration is the only reason populations have not declined.

Likely futures

Restrictions on movement mean migration flows in and out of Australia have fallen dramatically, so it is no surprise that we will see much lower levels of net overseas migration (NOM) in the future.

The biggest impact will be the drop in students from overseas. We’ll also see far fewer people leaving. No overseas gap year for a while! This means NOM falling from over 200,000 people per year to between a quarter and a half of that number.

The impact of COVID-19 on internal migration is the hardest to predict. There’s very little movement at the moment. Whether we’ll see a change in past patterns is still too early to call. It’s likely that jobs and housing will remain important, as they always have been.

While there’s been lots of talk about a baby spike in response to lock down, the fact is, fertility rates don’t go up during a crisis. Australia’s fertility rates were already coming down, and health and economic uncertainty is likely to contribute to even lower birth rates.

A future of slower growth

These changes mean slower population growth for Australia in the immediate future compared to what we’ve seen in the past 10 years. The impact will be different across states and territories and between communities.

The good news is, the people we are planning for are already here and most of them will be here next year, just one year older.

Image: The people we are planning for are already here - Australia's population pyramid, December 2019.

We know which communities have older age profiles and which have large numbers of children in primary school. These are things we can plan for now to ensure our COVID-current populations have a healthy future.


Kim is a Demographer who has worked across Australia and New Zealand identifying key population factors that affect strategic and policy planning. During COVID-19 Kim has been working to make sense of Australia's population future. Reach out if you want to talk more.

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