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Population change refers to alterations in the human characteristics of a society. It can encompass issues such as population growth, movement into or out of a country (immigration and emigration), movement within a country (internal migration), and demographic changes.

Chapter Two of this topic discussed the issue of urban growth and decline in Australia. This chapter looks at some other major issues relating to population change in Australia and the impacts that they are likely to have on the environment. Apart from a slight level of population growth (the ratio of births to deaths, plus immigration), the two most prevalent population trends in Australia relate to immigration and demographic changes. The first is that Australian society is ageing rapidly, and the second is that we are becoming increasingly multicultural.

The significance of these two population trends for Australia's environments will be extremely far reaching in years to come. In terms of the physical environment, these changes will directly or indirectly affect our patterns of natural resource consumption and therefore the conservation of our natural ecosystems. In terms of their impacts upon the built environment, they will have ramifications for the country's level of human capital and hence economic well-being and alter the needs for housing, industry and infrastructure. They will also change Australia's general social fabric and cultural characteristics.

Analysing the impacts of population trends such as these are an important facet of the study of human geography because they can positively and/or negatively impact on our entire society. Another trend affecting population change in Australia that is touched on in this chapter, is a recent increase in internal migration (movement within Australia) out of cities, which is commonly referred to as the nation's 'sea change'.

Australia's general population characteristics

Australia is made up of just over 20 million people. When considering the country's total land mass, this figure is relatively small by world standards. The demographic trends of spatial localities (different geographical areas), which include factors such as age and gender balances, employment type and status, levels of education, quality of healthcare services, life expectancy, linguistic orientation and family structure, are ascertained by national census data collected by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) once every five years. Although it is important that Australia's population continues to grow in order to sustain our economy and uphold the high standard of living most of the population enjoys, more people will mean that the human impact upon the environment will be greater (and no doubt costlier) than it already is.

In a general sense, Australia's population is presently dominated by middle-aged, middle-income earners. The majority of people live in our State and Territory capitals and only about 15 per cent reside outside of coastal and urban areas. Over the past few decades, populations in our rural areas have drifted towards cities because of a reduction in goods and services, and rising unemployment levels. The racial composition of Australia is about 92 per cent Caucasian, 7 per cent Asian and 1 per cent Aboriginal or other.

Major impacts of our ageing population

The ageing nature of Australia's population is currently a major focus of government policy. Over the next few decades it is predicted that Australia's proportion of people aged over 65 years will grow substantially. At the same time the percentage of people less than 15 years old looks set to decline at a similarly rapid pace. The main reasons behind this are that people are having fewer children, later in life. The life expectancy of most non-Indigenous Australians is increasing (currently it is about 76.5 years for males and 82.5 years for females), a condition largely due to better medical technology and reduced mortality rates. It has been predicted that these figures are each going to increase considerably over the next few decades. The Indigenous Australian population is not ageing at the same rate as the rest of the Australian population because sadly, their life expectancy is lower and mortality rates higher than those of non-Indigenous Australians. See image 1

Negative effects

Implications of the ageing population will largely be in relation to Australia's built environments. As more people retire, there will be a reduction in human capital (the working population or skilled labour force participation), which will impact negatively on the economy. Having a strong economy is dependent upon having a large working population, as this ensures that people can maintain their standards of living. A concern related to this in Australia is that most of the 'baby-boomers' generation (people born in the post-World War II baby boom between 1946 and 1961) are set to retire by the year 2010. The health and disability services, income support and aged-care facilities these retirees will require are going to place financial pressure on local, State and Territory and federal governments. It will also pose a greater burden to working taxpayers, as it means that less public money will be available for infrastructure, industry development, education and general health and welfare services, required to support younger Australian generations.

Although Australia's population is growing, the rate at which it is expanding is not enough to counteract these negative effects of an ageing population. Since 2001, in an effort to encourage people to have more children, the federal government has been offering families a financial bonus for having babies. Some people have criticised this, arguing that increasing immigration quotas would be a more practical policy than paying people a few thousand dollars to have children.

Positive effects

It should be noted, however, that not all the implications of a non-working, ageing population will come at an economic disadvantage to the population. A healthy ageing population can increase social capital and reduce expenditure on certain community services. Retirees are more likely to participate in volunteer activities that are of benefit to the community. The healthier Australia's elders, the better able they are to share their knowledge, skills and experience with younger generations.

Major impacts of our multicultural population

Although Australia's rate of immigration (calculated by dividing the amount of overseas migrants by the domestic population and multiplying this by 100) is relatively low at about 0.7 per cent, the range of different linguistic and cultural backgrounds from which our migrant populations originate is greatly changing the social and cultural fabric of the country. Today, about one quarter of Australia's population was born overseas, which means that our racial make-up and linguistic composition is now extremely diverse (over 200 languages are now spoken in Australia, which includes 45 Indigenous languages). Although English is by far the dominant language, a significant amount of the population speaks a language other than English at home. Some schools, although not many, now even have bilingual teaching programmes. The main language groups in Australia, in order of dominance are: English, Chinese, Italian and other or unspecified.

Distribution of the migrant population

Where migrants choose to settle greatly affects Australian environments. The distribution of the migrant population in Australia plays a key role in the formation, funding and administration of many government policies and services. These are essential for maintaining overseas migrants' smooth integration into Australian society.

One of the main factors determining where migrants chose to live in Australia is the settlement patterns established by previous arrivals of the same or similar ethnic backgrounds. Other influences are the level of employment opportunities a given area provides (this is much higher in urban areas), and even the site where a migrant initially entered the country. For these reasons, the vast majority of migrants in Australia (around 80 per cent) live in the nation's capital cities, particularly Sydney and Melbourne. Rural Australia does not tend to attract many overseas migrants because its towns are predominantly English-speaking. See image 2

Increasing multiculturalism

Although we are often unaware of its ubiquity (state of being present everywhere) and influence, culture plays an important role in shaping the way people within a society go about their daily lives. It influences our perceptions of the world, our attitudes toward the environment and our abilities to interact with one another.

A society's culture is neither rigid nor permanent. It is fluid and in a constant state of change, reflecting the natural way that communities and the environments surrounding them also change. Increases in the racial and ethnic diversity of a population therefore need to be accompanied by social policies that recognise the cultural transformations that multiculturalism brings. Failure to acknowledge this not only increases the risk of social exclusion and inequality between different groups and different geographical areas (refer to Chapter Three), but it also reduces a society's ability to benefit from the many positives that multiculturalism can bring. See image 3

Major impacts of Australia's sea change

While the process of ever-expanding cities is still continuing today, the most dramatic period of mass movement to Australian cities occurred in the two decades following World War II. Since then, however, the trend towards urbanisation has slightly declined and even started to turn in the other direction for much of the older Australian-born population.

In the last 35 years, approximately one million Australians have left metropolitan areas for smaller towns. Most of this internal migration has been along the east coast and it has mainly involved middle-aged or older Australian-born residents. While some internal migration has involved movement to country areas that are not too far from the city, it has mostly seen people relocate from cities to coastal towns. This is why it is often referred to as the nation's 'sea change'.

The effects of this trend have varied in different Australian States. Queensland is experiencing an influx of residents from other parts of Australia, which is placing increasing pressure on its existing infrastructure and heightening the need for ecologically sustainable planning. Tasmania, on the other hand, has witnessed a steady exodus of residents, mainly from younger generations. This is increasing problems associated with its ageing population.


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