Demographic regimes and national identity New Zealand’s demographic regime, moderate to high population growth for most of the last 170+ years, has shaped ‘nation building’, especially self-identity (Pool 2016). Increasing population numbers, the quantum of demography, is the value ‘writ large’ in our consciousness, as an immigrant country with one of the highest rates of natural increase (births minus deaths) among western developed countries (WDCs)1 . Yet, the spectre of slower or negative demographic rates has now appeared for some regions, and even nationally (Jackson and Cameron 2017), invoked popularly by the application to various districts of the inexact and pejorative term ‘zombie towns’. Changes to places and people occur typically because of complex forces of population and development, or natural events, outside local control. The trends in the different factors producing sub-national demographic changes have been identified and parsed in other articles in this issue (Jackson and Brabyn, infra; Cameron infra).
Slower growth and even population decline are not new in Aotearoa’s history, as nineteenth century Mäori, and Päkehä in the 1930s depression show. But, with the significant exception of Victorian era Mäori, this was transitory. The Marsden programme, to which this article contributes, asks: is New Zealand at an inflection point of a continuing and deeper decline, with a new mix of factors, with subnational decreases a key component that might be an ‘early warning’ sign of negative national growth? The question here is whether the population dynamics and structures unfolding since 1970/1980 simply represent continuities (or accelerations) of on-going past trends, or whether instead they are far more profound – a multi-factorial rupture, across major segments of the demographic system and its development co-variates? Or, more sceptically, are they simply an artefact of the first-time availability of digitalised, anonymised, but individual level data sets that give an appearance of real change?