This snapshot was written by the Centre for Population at Treasury for the AIHW.

Australia’s population story has historically been one of strong growth. Australia’s population was 25.7 million at 30 June 2020, having grown around 1.4% a year on average since it was 17.1 million at 30 June 1990. Australia’s population is concentrated in the major cities, which account for 72 per cent of the total population. By contrast, 26 per cent live in inner and outer regional Australia, with the remainder living in Remote and very remote areas (see Demographic snapshot 2019–20).

Over this period:

  • Net overseas migration has become the main driver of population growth, increasing from around 125,000 people in 1989–90 to 195,000 people in 2019–20, and directly contributing a bit more than half of total population growth over this period. The share of Australian residents born overseas continued to increase to be around 30 per cent by the end of 2019–20 (see Demographic snapshot 2019–20).
  • Natural increase (number of births minus number of deaths) increased from around 132,000 people in 1989–90 to 137,000 people in 2019–20, contributing around 48% of population growth over this period:
    • fertility rates have declined, from 1.87 babies per woman in 1989‑90 to 1.65 in 2019-20
    • the number of deaths has grown faster than the number of births over this period
    • life expectancies at birth have continued to increase, from 73.9 years for males and 80.1 years for females in 1990, to 80.9 years for males and 85.0 years for females in 2017–19.
  • Australia’s population has grown older, with the median age increasing from 32.1 years at 30 June 1990 to 37.8 years at 30 June 2020. Along the age distribution, population is most concentrated in the 30–39 age band (see Demographic snapshot 2019–20).

Most recently, Australia’s population growth is being affected by the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID‑19) pandemic, and the measures taken to limit its spread. The closure of international borders has already led to negative net overseas migration and the lowest rate of population growth in more than one hundred years (Centre for population 2020). The results on this page largely reflect the impacts of the pandemic in Australia in 2020. They do not fully cover the periods, nor reflect any impacts to Australia’s population, relating to outbreaks of the Delta variant of COVID-19 occurring in 2021.

In addition, other longer-term trends present before COVID-19 will continue to affect the size and distribution of the population, such as the ongoing decline in the fertility rate, the decline in the rate of internal migration, and the slower rate of mortality improvement observed in recent years.

Changes to Australia’s demographic profile, in particular population ageing, have a number of implications for the economy and living standards, as set out in the 2021 Intergenerational Report.

Overview of past population growth and trends

Australia’s population growth over the decade to 30 June 2020 averaged 1.6% a year. As shown in Figure 1, natural increase has been relatively steady, while net overseas migration has fluctuated more. Natural increase was briefly the main driver of population growth during the early 1990s, but net overseas migration has consistently contributed more to population growth since 2005-06.

More than two‑thirds (68%) of Australia’s population lived in the 8 capital cities at 30 June 2020, increasing from 65% at 30 June 1988. Over this period, most capital cities grew faster than their respective rest-of-state areas.

Population growth in Australia has varied widely across cities and regions and has been largely shaped by the flow of net overseas migration and net internal migration. While the contribution to growth from natural increase has varied across parts of the country, at the national level it has been largely stable over time.

Over the calendar year 2020, and following the outbreak of the COVID‑19 pandemic, Australia’s annual population growth slowed to just 0.5% over the year –  the lowest since 1916 (-1.0%). This was primarily due to a low level of net overseas migration, which was reported at around 3,300 people for 2020 compared to 247,600 people the year before.

A chart showing the contributions of net overseas migration, and natural increase to Australia’s historical population growth. Australia’s population growth over the decade to 30 June 2020 averaged 1.6% a year. The contribution from natural increase has been relatively steady, while net overseas migration has fluctuated more.

Natural increase

Since the late 2000s, natural increase has added around 150,000 people a year to the Australian population. Over the past 30 years, the total fertility rate has fallen from 1.87 babies per woman in 1989-90 to 1.65 in 2019-20. Life expectancies at birth increased and are among the highest in the world. Despite these improvements, the number of deaths has grown faster than the number of births. As a result, natural increase has become smaller as a proportion of the population.

The full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on births will not be observed in official datasets for some time. This is due to the delay between factors that impact decisions to conceive and births taking place, and the lag in the release of official statistics, as well as continued outbreaks and restrictions

To date the impact of COVID‑19 on deaths in Australia has been limited. A new monthly series on provisional mortality published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics showed that the total number of doctor-certified deaths in 2020 (143,232) was in line with the average number of deaths over the previous 5 years (143,017) (ABS 2021b). Weekly deaths due to respiratory diseases from late April until the beginning of December 2020 were lower than the average from 2015 to 2019.

Net overseas migration

In recent years, net overseas migration has been the main driver of Australia’s population growth (Figure 1). The implementation of COVID-19 related border restrictions toward the end of March quarter 2020 led to the level of net overseas migration in 2019‑20 (195,000 people) being lower than the average of the previous 5 years (227,000 people), and to the level of quarterly net overseas migration being negative in the June, September and December quarters of 2020 — these were the first quarters of negative net overseas migration since June 1993. The impacts of current and future restrictions due to COVID-19 are likely to have similar impacts on migration.

Net internal migration

Australia has high rates of internal migration (the number of people who move within Australia as a proportion of the total population) compared with other countries (ABS 2018), although this has been declining over time.

The rate of interstate migration – or the number of people who move as a proportion of the total population – tends to decline in times of economic shocks and recessions, and recover afterwards.

In 2020, fewer people moved interstate in Australia compared to the previous year. There has also been a large decline in the number of people moving from regional areas to the capital cities, which has led to increased net internal migration for regional areas.

The level of internal migration dropped by around 10 per cent over the year to June, September, and December 2020. This was likely due to more people staying in place in response to economic uncertainty and state and territory border closures.

Australia’s population in a global context

Australia’s population growth rate is higher than that of most developed countries. In 2019 it was 1.5%, which is well above the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development country average of 0.5% (Figure 2).

A chart showing annual population growth of Australia, and comparable countries. Australia’s population growth rate is higher than that of most developed countries. In 2019 it was 1.5%, which is well above than the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development country average of 0.5%.

For calendar year 2019, Australia’s total fertility rate was higher than that of Italy, Japan, Canada, and Germany, but lower than France, New Zealand, and the United States. Australia and other developed countries have generally experienced declines in fertility since the end of the baby boom of the mid-1960s (World Bank 2020).

In 2019, Australia’s life expectancy at birth for males and females was the 12th highest in the world (World Bank 2020).

Population ageing

Australia’s overall population has been growing older over time, with the share of people aged 65 and over roughly doubling between 30 June 1946 and 30 June 2020. The share of people aged 65 and over increased from 11% in 1990 to 16% in 2020. Australia’s population ageing has been driven by low fertility and increasing life expectancy.

Historically, the capital cities have attracted a larger share of net overseas migration than the rest-of-state areas. Given overseas migrants tend to be, on average, younger than the overall population of Australia, migrants have contributed to capital city populations tending to be younger and also ageing more slowly than the rest-of-state areas. The difference in ageing is also driven by internal migration into capital cities of younger people from the rest-of-state areas. This is despite fertility rates generally being higher, and life expectancies being lower, in rest-of-state areas.

Australia’s future population

Australia’s future population growth and geographic distribution have already been heavily influenced by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and this is expected to continue over the next few years. Figure 3 illustrates the projections made in the 2021‑22 Budget, which reflect contextual assumptions made at the time around international travel restrictions (Treasury 2021a). Even following recovery from the pandemic, the effects of COVID-19 on Australia’s population are projected to be long-lasting. The Intergenerational Report’s (IGR) 40-year population projections were revised down for the first time in the IGR released in June 2021.

A chart showing projections of Australia’s population growth, detailing the yearly contribution of net overseas migration and natural increase. Future population growth is projected to remain positive but slow over the next few years, falling from 1.3% in 2019-20 to 0.1% in 2020-21 and 0.2% in 2021-22. Natural increase is projected to drive all of Australia’s population growth in 2020‑21 and 2021-22, with net overseas migration forecast to return to being the largest contributor to population growth again from 2023-24.

The demographic shock caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating the existing ageing challenge. Future population growth is projected to remain positive but slow over the next few years, falling from 1.3% last observed in 2019-20 to 0.1% in 2020-21 and 0.2% in 2021-22, which would be the lowest annual rates of growth since 0% recorded in 1916-17. The population is projected to reach 29.1 million by 30 June 2032.

Natural increase is projected to drive all of Australia’s population growth in 2020‑21 and 2021-22, with net overseas migration forecast to return to being the largest contributor to population growth again from 2023-24.

Net overseas migration remains essential for long-run population growth. In the absence of any net overseas migration, Australia’s population growth would turn negative within one generation, given fertility remains below replacement rates.

Fertility

Restrictions and economic uncertainty brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic are expected to contribute to lower future fertility as some families delay decisions to have children. The total fertility rate is assumed to fall from 1.65 babies per woman in 2019‑20 to 1.58 in 2021-22. However, around 4 out of every 5 babies who would have been born in this period are projected to be born within the next 10 years. As a result, the fertility rate is then assumed to rise to 1.69 by 2023-24. From then on, the total fertility rate is assumed to decline to, and then stabilise at, 1.62 babies per woman by 2030-31. This decline reflects the trend of women having children later in life, and having fewer children when they do.

Consistent with the observed long-run trend, natural increase is projected to continue to decline over the next ten years from around 137,000 people in 2019-20 to around 109,000 in 2031-32. This decline is the result of a smaller increase in the number of babies being born and a rise in the number of annual deaths due to an older population.

Net internal migration

COVID-19 restrictions, in particular the Melbourne lockdown from July to November 2020, have had an impact on net internal migration across Australia. The number of people migrating interstate fell 9% in 2019-20. Some states (such as Western Australia, and South Australia) have changed recent internal migration trends, driven by a falling number of residents leaving that state. From 2024-25, the level of interstate and intrastate migration is assumed to return to the 20-year historical average. Although noting, any future restrictions, including those implemented in 2021 following outbreaks of the Delta variant of COVID-19 are likely to impact net internal migration further.

Net overseas migration

Net overseas migration is the component of population change expected to be affected most by COVID-19 due to the effect of travel restrictions to stop the spread of the virus globally. Travel restrictions implemented in Australia from March 2020 meant temporary migrants, with limited exceptions, have not been able to enter Australia. At the same time, on-shore temporary migrants have departed Australia at close to normal levels. As a result, Australia has experienced, and is forecast to continue to experience, a net outflow of migrants — falling from an inflow of 195,200 people in 2019-20 to be around -97,000 people by the end of 2020-21, and -77,000 people in 2021-22 before increasing to 235,000 people in 2024-25.

States and territories

Due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on international movements, states and territories that have historically gained a large proportion of their growth from overseas migrants are forecast to experience a relatively larger fall in their population growth. Additionally, levels of interstate migration in most states and territories are expected to be lower due to the economic effects of the pandemic. Consistent with the national pattern, state and territory populations are projected to grow more slowly or have negative growth due to COVID-19. However, by the end of 2031-32 growth rates for state and territory populations are projected to be close to the rates that were expected pre-COVID-19. Although, as with internal migration, any future restrictions, including those implemented in 2021 following outbreaks of the Delta variant of COVID-19 are likely to impact net overseas migration further too.

Where do I go for more information?

For detailed discussion of Australia’s population from 1988-89 to 2018-19 see:

For the latest population projections see:

This page was written by the Australian Government Centre for Population.

References

ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) 2018. Population Shift: Understanding Internal Migration in Australia. Canberra: ABS. Viewed, 29 June 2021.

ABS 2021a. National state and territory population, December 2020. Canberra: ABS. Viewed 27 July 2021.

ABS 2021b. Provisional Mortality Statistics March 2021. Canberra: ABS. Viewed 30 June 2021.

ABS 2021c. Regional population, 2019-20 financial year. Canberra: ABS. Viewed 27 July 2021.

ABS 2021d. ABS Statistics, Migration, Australia, 2019-20 financial year. Canberra: ABS. Viewed 27 July 2021.

Centre for Population 2020. Population Statement, December 2020. Canberra: Centre for Population. Viewed, 30 June 2021.

Treasury 2021a. Budget 2021–22: Budget Strategy and Outlook: Budget Paper No. 1. Canberra: Treasury. Viewed, 30 June 2021.

Treasury 2021b. 2021 Intergenerational Report. Viewed, 30 June 2021.

World Bank 2020. World Bank Open Data. Viewed, 30 June 2021.