The Stats Guy: A look at the changing face of Australia, a migration nation

The ABS has published a dataset that shows the Australian population by country of birth as per July 2021.

The ABS has published a dataset that shows the Australian population by country of birth as per July 2021. Photo: TND

Last week the ABS published a wonderfully insightful dataset that shows the Australian population by country of birth as of June 2021.

This is an excellent excuse to reflect on our role as a migration nation.

In 2020, almost 30 per cent of the Australian population was born abroad. In Sydney about half the people have at least one parent that was born overseas. Depending on how loosely we define the term “migration background” we can argue that we are a majority migrant nation.

In either case, we are becoming increasingly diverse as a people. In 1996 the share of foreign-born people in Australia was 23.2 per cent. This number inched up to 29.8 per cent by 2020. The border closures led to an unexpected fall in migrants. Instead of adding 180,000 migrants per year (average of the decade before the pandemic), Australia lost 151,000 migrants between 2020 and 2021.

The migrant stock (the official technical term) in Australia now stands at 7.50 million (or 29.1 per cent of the population) – down from 7.65 million in 2020.

In the long-term, this will be a one-off outlier. Australia will continue to import international students and skilled workers at scale. As I wrote previously, you can look at the federal budget to see that no Treasurer in their right mind would argue for a low migration intake. Our nation will continue to become more diverse every year.

The face of the nation is changing as a new wave of nationalities call Australia home. In the decades after WWII, migrants from Greece and Italy shaped the nation. Upon arrival, they convinced Australians in a heartbeat to take up Mediterranean cuisine, supplement tea with coffee and potatoes for pasta.

We even started to build houses based on the Mediterranean rather than English design principles. Australians have always picked up the best practices and habits of newly arrived migrants. We really are suggestable and pliable people willing to be reshaped, aren’t we?

Nowadays migrants come from Asian nations rather than European ones – considering our trade profile that isn’t much of a surprise. In 1996 about 57 per cent of migrants in Australia were from European nations and only 22 per cent from Asian nations. By 2021, this trend almost reversed (30 per cent European vs 43 per cent Asian). We’ve already integrated Asian foods into our diet, and I wonder which architectural elements we might embrace over time. Will the standard Aussie home be built with Feng Shui in mind?

The trend towards becoming an even more Asian nation was slowed in 2019 when Chinese migration to Australia was throttled by the Chinese Communist Party – a little political flex as we will occasionally experience when dealing with China. This will eventually ease as the emerging Asian urban middle-class continues to demand English speaking university education.

In 2021, some Chinese and Indian migrants returned to their countries of origin at high rates. These were largely international students who spent the pandemic at home with their parents, rather than logging into online courses from their purpose-built student apartments in Melbourne or Sydney. Some skilled migrants only held temporary employment contracts and left the country during the prolonged lockdowns.

The decline in migrants from England, Greece and Italy has little to do with the pandemic. Migrants from these nations have simply reached the dying stage of their lifecycle now. They arrived half a century ago when aged in their 20s. This becomes clearly visible when we compare the age profile of the migrants from Greece and Italy. The latest data for the above chart sadly comes from the 2016 Census but the general shape remains (I can’t wait to update this chart in late June, when 2021 Census data gets released). The most common age for migrants from India is 32, while the most common age for Greek migrants is 76.

Of the 141 officially listed migration source countries, 111 lost population. While three nations stayed stable, 27 nations saw their migrant stock in Australia increase. The South African and Filipino populations in Australia saw growth, as did a few refugee source nations like Afghanistan, and small neighbours of Australia (Tonga, Vanuatu, Samoa).

The Australian-born population in Australia increased by 196,000 between 2020 and 2021. That’s about 15,000 more people than we would have expected, based on data from the decade before the pandemic. As I explained in a previous column, this wasn’t the result of a coronavirus baby boom. Rather, we saw Aussie ex-pats returning  during the pandemic. These returnees tended to have high incomes and decent savings that further added to the local housing boom.

When we look at this data next year, high migration will have returned. Australia will have made itself a bit more culturally diverse yet again. We are well experienced in taking in folks from abroad and absorbing the best their cultures have to offer.

That said, retaining social cohesion is a challenge. Creating opportunities for migrants to interact with the established population as equals in social and professional situations is crucial.

For people to interact as equals, a common language base is necessary. Ensuring English language proficiency must be a priority. This should take place before allowing international students and skilled workers into the country. With humanitarian and family visas, such as training should be provided (and made compulsory).

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