Housing and urban development and the ageing population

We have considered how our population is likely to change over time and explored some issues around ageing populations and how they affect urban development.

How the population of Aotearoa New Zealand is ageing

In the next decade, our population will have more people over 65 years of age than children under 15 years of age.


Scale showing the expected increasing ageing population

Source: Better Later Life, Office For Seniors

Ageing populations are marked by an increasing percentage of older age groups and a decreasing percentage of younger age groups in a population (structural ageing).

In Aotearoa New Zealand, this is associated with larger numbers of people in older age groups (numerical ageing). Numerical ageing and structural ageing are not uniform across our different ethnicities, regions, or labour markets.

Population ageing affects different ethnicities, regions and industries differently:

  • The oldest sub-populations in this country are Europeans followed by the Asian ethnicities. Māori and Pacific peoples have much younger population structure. Despite increasing longevity, Māori and Pacific peoples have shorter lifespans than non-Māori.
  • Some regions have significantly older (or younger) population structures than others. Both structure and numbers matter. For example, Marlborough has one of the oldest regional population structures. Auckland has one of the youngest population structures. However, there are many more people over 65 years of age in Auckland than there are in Marlborough.
  • Some industries or sectors are also marked by ageing workforces. Healthcare, particularly aged care, teaching, and the construction industry have seen people working for longer in the sector. Seniors leaving those industries are not being replaced by a larger number of younger workers.

For more information about the population structure of different ethnic groups in Aotearoa New Zealand visit 2018 Census ethnic group summaries | Stats NZ.

Intergenerational experiences

A focus on ageing population does not mean just a focus on seniors. Ageing populations affect us all – young and old. Being a senior when and where there are lots of children and young people is very different to when and where there are lots of other seniors around. Similarly, being a young person in a community with fewer young people is different to being a young person in a community where there a high numbers and proportions of young people.

Aotearoa New Zealand has seen the conditions that shape the life course of different cohorts change significantly in the 1980s and 1990s. The cohort you are born into can have a profound impact on your life experience.

A cohort is a set of people born during a particular period. One of the most pronounced impacts of this interrelationship between cohorts and ageing populations, is the differences in housing experiences born earlier in the 20th century compared to those born recently.

Seniors still tend to own their own homes because they entered the housing market when they were young under a very different housing system, when house prices were relatively low and consumed a lower proportion of their incomes.

Younger people are struggling to own their own homes in part because house prices are high but especially because the housing system is very different from the past.

As the population ages and these young people become older people, without significant changes, New Zealand’s population will become increasingly rent dependent and this will include both younger and older age groups.

Contrasting experiences of, and inequality of outcomes for, cohorts can be a source of tension and age-based stigmatisation in which both the young became adversely judged by some, and old adversely judged by others. This can be fuelled and made even more intense when some populations within a society, as they are in New Zealand, have different age population structures. Several countries have addressed those issues associated with ageing population structures by developing policies designed to address age-related inequality and promote intergenerational solidarity.

Why consider our ageing population, our housing and our towns and cities

Already, our dwellings, our towns and our cities already struggle to meet the needs and promote the social, economic, and cultural wellbeing of different age groups.

This is likely to be exacerbated not only by structural and numerical population ageing but other pressures, including climate change and migration.

When considering our subject matter, we have gathered information about ageing and:

  • our housing stock and the built environment
  • the challenges of climate change and other global pressures, and
  • housing security and affordability.

Housing stock and the built environment

Much of the housing stock and the built environments (our roads, our town and cityscapes) will remain as our populations age.  Although new houses will be built, new neighbourhoods and sub-divisions opened up, the majority of housing stock, residential areas and the commercial and industrial hubs that service them, and the road, footpaths and rail will be a legacy of earlier times or shaped by earlier decisions.

Post-World War II government policies, land development and building activity were focused on creating housing for nuclear families. Suburbia became predominant when the preoccupation with nuclear families coincided with increasing car ownership, cheap fuel, and the application of largely standardised design and construction. While the “baby boom” families have long since grown up and moved on, the pattern of detached suburban housing remains.

Many of the subdivisions created in the 1960s and 1970s assumed that people would drive everywhere, so had no footpaths, token local parks and no particularly recognisable centre. Some subdivision design practices have changed, and a growing proportion of people of all ages want more physically accessible neighbourhoods, a strengthened sense of local community, more local diversity in housing options, and better access to transport between home and employment, education, recreation, friends and family.

An increasing number and proportion of people live in cities: this is a global ‘megatrend’ and is still happening in New Zealand, although slower than the peak period (for non-Māori) between 1955 and 1980. Auckland is still growing strongly, numerically and proportionally, but some of our regional towns and districts are projected to lose population and experience structural ageing as (a) younger people move to larger centres and (b) birth rates remain under replacement levels. At the same time, there is evidence of movement out of larger urban areas into regional cities and towns.

New Zealand housing stock and many of our towns and cities have struggled to provide for and promote the wellbeing of residents, irrespective of age. The housing stock remains relatively standardised. New builds have not responded significantly to changing household sizes or composition. Both small households and very large households as well as intergenerational households find the housing stock is not flexible to their needs.

There will be larger populations with age-related frailty, including sensory and cognitive disability, as the population ages structurally and numerically. Disabled people are also living longer. These trends, as well as the tendency for seniors to live in the community for longer, have seen evolving health technologies, systems and services including in-home treatment and care. Flexible design and adaptability is, however, not typically a characteristic of new builds.

Challenges of climate change and other global pressures

Climate change presents significant challenges and opportunities. The impact of adverse events like river and coastal flooding, increasing incidence of storms, extremes of heat and cold are known to fall disproportionately on both the very young and on seniors. Young and old tend to be more physically vulnerable to extremes of temperature, but they are also likely to live disproportionately in places and dwellings vulnerable to these events. The way we design and build our houses is neither well attuned or adaptable to reducing climate change risks. However, there are, opportunities for the design and construction industry to innovate. 

Many New Zealand citizens and people who can reside here actually live overseas. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the potential pressure on our housing and cities to provide for the many who may wish to return. It has also highlighted how important new settlers and temporary workers are to our economy and many of our sectors such as health care and the primary industries. Notably migration has not in the past, despite high in-migration for many years in the decade before the COVID-19 pandemic, had a significant impact on the age structure of the population in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Housing security and affordability

Over the last thirty years, there has been a significant change in the prices of house and the tenure of the dwellings to which households have access. This has partly been associated with the building industry producing a lower proportion of low-cost dwellings. It is also associated with house price increases and an expanding private rental sector. The result is that high proportions of households are in housing affordability stress

Owner occupation has been declining in all age groups and in all local government areas for several decades. There has been a corresponding increase in people renting. Home ownership among Māori and Pacific peoples has declined significantly. The cultural preference for multi-generational housing is not well catered for by market forces, and for Māori there are tensions between housing affordability and whenua connections.

Precarious tenure is evident in the private rental sector. Average lease duration is just over two years, and our rental properties – generally older and predisposed to being cold, damp and mould – offer lower security of tenure compared to those that are owner-occupied. The “build to rent” model is well established in a few other countries, but it is not typical of the private rental market in New Zealand. Young people because are particularly vulnerable to homelessness and seniors show a rapid rise in the homelessness statistics.

Issues of affordability and precarious housing become acute where incomes are low. The Retirement Commission has already recognised that declining home ownership, limited or high-cost housing typologies, and an increase in renting into old age has implications for retirement incomes and New Zealand’s national superannuation. An ageing population tends to restrain household income growth. In that context, saving for retirement as well as affordable housing through the lifecycle is important. Populations vulnerable to low incomes and disrupted employment include disabled people, women, Māori and Pacific peoples. As those populations age, so pressures on housing affordability and security may be expected to increase.

Published: February 9, 2022