Dr Luke Buckmaster, Social Policy Section and Joanne
Simon-Davies, Statistics and Mapping Section
How ‘big’ is Australia’s population likely to
become by 2050?
Recently, the question of whether Australia’s future
population should be ‘big’, ‘small’ or
‘sustainable’ has emerged as a political issue.
Discussion of this issue has been stimulated, in part, by
projections that Australia’s population may reach 35.9
million by 2050.
However, there has been some confusion in public debates about
the precise status of these projections—are they based on
formal population targets? How are population projections
calculated? Is a population of 35.9 million by 2050 inevitable?
Australia does not have a formal population policy that commits
the country to a particular population target.
In April 2010, the Government established the new office of
Minister for Population (later renamed Sustainable Population). The
Minister’s main role will be to develop a sustainable
population strategy through consideration of the likely size of
Australia’s future population and the expected impact on
areas such as transport, housing, infrastructure, employment and
The Minister is to be advised by three panels addressing the
areas of demographic change and liveability, productivity and
prosperity and sustainable development. The three panels have
responsibility for providing advice that will form the basis of a
public issues paper to be released in late 2010.
Population projections produced by the Australian Bureau of
Statistics (ABS) are not predictions or forecasts. Rather they
illustrate growth and change in the population based on assumptions
about future demographic trends. Broadly, these projections use
assumptions about rates of fertility, mortality and net migration
(incorporating current trends) and, by using different combinations
of these assumptions, make estimates about the population into the
future (currently to 2101).
ABS projections are presented in three series: A, B and C.
Series B largely reflects current demographic trends, while Series
A and C are based on high and low assumptions for each of the key
demographic variables respectively.
|ABS Population Projections, Main Projection
|(a) From 2021(b) From 2010-11 in A and C. From
2007-08 in B.(c) From 2056.Source: ABS Population Projections,
Australia, 2006 to 2101
|Total fertility rate (a)
|Net overseas migration
|Life expectancy at birth—male (c)
|Life expectancy at birth—female (c)
|Projected population at June 30 2056
The further the projections move into the future, the more
speculative the assumptions they are based on. There is no
certainty that the population projections will or will not be
reached. One reason for this is that the assumptions cannot include
unexpected events, social changes or government policy changes.
The ABS population projections are based on estimated resident
population (ERP). The ERP is calculated by adding natural increase
(the excess of births over deaths) and net overseas migration
occurring during the period to the population at the beginning of
The next ABS population projections will be released after the
2011 Census of Population and Housing and are not expected until
Australia’s projected population
As noted, recent debates about Australia’s population have
centred on the projection that Australia’s population may
reach 35.9 million by 2050. This figure comes from Treasury’s
2010 Intergenerational Report (IGR) (Australia to 2050: future
Under this projection, the population will continue to grow but
annual rates of population growth would slow gradually. According
to Treasury, the rate of increase will slow from 2.1 per cent in
2008–09 to 0.9 per cent in 2049–50.
The Treasury projection is also more or less consistent with the
figure predicted by the ABS (35.5 million by 2056) in its middle
range (Series B) projection for 2056. Whilst the ABS creates many
alternative variations of the projections, Treasury used a
combination of ABS and its own projections in the IGR.
According to the ABS, Australia’s estimated resident
population at 30 June 2007 of 21.0 million people is projected to
increase to between 30.9 and 42.5 million people by 2056; and to
between 33.7 and 62.2 million people by 2101.
Interpreting the projections
As can be seen above, population projections vary widely
depending on the assumptions used. The most widely used current
figure, Treasury’s ‘35.9 million by 2050’ is a
middle range projection largely reflecting current demographic
trends. Nevertheless, even the ABS’s low growth (Series C)
projection suggests that the population would reach 30 million by
the middle of the century.
Population assumptions/projections can change markedly over even
a relatively short period of time (for example, through changes in
government policy). As a result, caution needs to be used when
interpreting population projection data. For example, the 2004 ABS
middle-range projection was for a population of 28.2 million by
2051—based on assumptions of a immigration rate of 110 000
and a fertility rate of 1.7. By 2008, the projection had increased
to 35.5 million by 2056, with an immigration assumption of 180 000
and fertility rate of 1.8. This change reflected increases in the
level of immigration and the birth rate over this time.
Therefore, a given population projection should not necessarily
be taken as something ‘set in stone’. Rather, it should
be seen as something that can change in a relatively short space of
time in response to demographic changes (which themselves can be
influenced by changes in the economy, public policy and the social
Library publications and key documents
Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS),
Population Projections, Australia, 2006 to 2101, cat. no.
3222.0, ABS, Canberra, 4 September 2008,
Treasury, Australia to 2050: future
challenges, Intergenerational Report (IGR) Treasury, Canberra,