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In the second half of 2018, the population of NSW reached 8 million – a milestone that was 230 years in the making.
Population wise, NSW is Australia’s largest state, and it is also the state that was first settled by Europeans.
The state capital, Sydney, is a global city which is one of the main gateways for overseas migrants.
This blog looks at the history of population growth in NSW from 1788 to 2019.
What is the current population of NSW?
At December 2019, the population of NSW was 8.13 million, an increase of 1.2% or 93,500 persons over the previous twelve months.
The 8 million milestone was reached in the Sept 2018 quarter – sometime in mid August if constant growth across that quarter is assumed.
The ABS has since released March 2020 data which showed that the NSW population increased again to reach 8.16 million.
NSW population since 1788
Over this time there have been several breaks in the time series, notably when the colonies of Victoria and Queensland were established in 1851 and 1859 respectively.
The data shows a decline in the NSW population in these years, but this is only because those people were now counted in those states.
It should also be acknowledged that Indigenous Australians were not counted in the population until the late 1960s. Estimates of the Indigenous population at the time of European settlement vary widely.
The ABS indicates a NSW population of 48,000 in 1788, and this declined thereafter as infectious diseases and displacement took their toll.
The analysis presented here does not include the Indigenous population until they were included in the ABS data.
In 1788 the population was just 859 persons.
The early years of settlement were difficult – food was scarce and mortality was high.
As a result population growth was volatile and even declined in some years.
The population did not reach 10,000 until 1809, more than twenty years after the arrival of the first settlers.
The population reached 100,000 in the late 1830s, and continued to grow steadily from this point.
The 1850s represented a key juncture in Australian history – not only were the colonies of Victoria and Queensland established, but gold was discovered in Victoria and NSW.
This resulted in a mass movement of people – both internally and from overseas – all wanting to seek their fortunes on the goldfields.
Population growth in NSW increased rapidly in the 1850s and this continued through to the 1880s, often exceeding 3% per annum.
The population reached 1 million in 1887, 99 years after the first settlers arrived.
At the time of Federation in 1901, the NSW population was 1.38 million.
During the 20th century each million was reached over a much shorter period of time.
NSW reached 2 million people in 1919, 32 years after the first million.
It took another 28 years to reach 3 million people (1947).
Both of these milestones may have been reached earlier if not for both World Wars and depressed economic conditions.
The fertility rate was low in the 1930s and early 1940s, which also contributed to a lower population growth rate.
Between 1930 and 1945 the annual average growth rate was 0.9% per annum.
After 1945, an increase in overseas migration, coupled with the post-war baby boom resulted in an increase in population growth.
Between 1945 and 1960 the annual average growth rate was 1.9% per annum.
In 1949, the NSW population increased by more than 100,000 people – the first time this volume was recorded in a calendar year.
Aside from a rebasing of the population in the early 1970s (which made it look like significant growth occurred), calendar year growth of 100,000 persons did not occur again in NSW until 2008.
In the second half of the 20th century, the population reached each million every 15-16 years eg the population was 4 million in 1962, and 5 million in 1977.
At 2000, the NSW population was 6.49 million, and it reached 7 million in 2008.
In recent years, a wave of overseas migration has resulted in stronger volumes of growth, and it took just 10 years for the NSW population to grow from 7 to 8 million.
From 2013 to 2018, the volume of population growth exceeded 100,000 persons.
As mentioned above, this dropped back slightly to 93,500 in 2019.
How does the NSW population grow?
The components of change (migration and natural increase) explain how populations grow (or decline).
Unfortunately, this data does not have an extensive time series but a clear picture can be gained for the last 40 or so years.
The chart below shows the components of change for NSW from 1982-2019.
Population change in NSW is characterised by high, but volatile levels of net overseas migration (NOM).
Along with Victoria, it is one of the major gateways for overseas migrants in Australia.
The volume of NOM exceeded 90,000 persons in 2008, and again between 2016 and 2018.
However NSW tends to lose population to other parts of Australia ie net interstate migration loss.
This has been a consistent trend for many decades with the volume showing a high degree of volatility.
In 1989, net interstate migration loss exceeded 42,000 persons, the highest level in the last 40 years.
Conversely, net interstate migration loss was less than 10,000 persons in 2014 and 2015, levels not recorded since the mid-1980s.
In contrast, the level of natural increase (births minus deaths) has been relatively steady over time, generally adding between 40-50,000 people to the population each year.
Natural increase was higher between 2007 and 2013 when it often exceeded 50,000 persons.
NSW population in the future
The NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment (DPIE) produces population projections on behalf of the NSW State government.
The latest projections were produced in 2019, so they do not include assumptions that consider COVID-19.
Unfortunately the results are not published for each year, but they indicate a population of 9 million will be reached in 2026, and 10 million in 2035 or 2036.
The assumptions underpinning these forecasts are largely consistent with current trends in that fertility rates, and the volume of net interstate migration remain fairly stable.
However, the volume of net overseas migration is assumed to decline over time, which has not been the pattern in recent years.
COVID-19 border closures have also dramatically impacted on the volume of NOM.
Whether or not NSW reaches the next population milestone as forecast by DPIE will depend on the length of time the international borders are closed.
At the same time, interstate migration patterns will change due to various state border controls within Australia.
NSW was settled by Europeans in 1788 with less than 1,000 people, and 230 years later the population reached 8 million persons.
Over this time period the rate of growth has been volatile, responding to economic conditions such as the 1850s goldrush (high growth) and world wars (low growth).
The population of NSW did not reach 1 million until almost 100 years after European settlement, but each subsequent million has been reached in a much shorter time frame.
The population took just ten years to increase from 7-8 million and is projected to reach 9 million (based on pre-COVID assumptions) in the mid-2020s.
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