‘It felt like bad news after bad news’: why record numbers are leaving New Zealand

<span>Record numbers of people are leaving New Zealand amid cost-of-living pressures, with more than half of the recent departures heading to Australia.</span><span>Photograph: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Record numbers of people are leaving New Zealand amid cost-of-living pressures, with more than half of the recent departures heading to Australia.Photograph: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock

When New Zealand opened its borders after the pandemic, the departures began immediately. For Kirsty Frame, then a 24-year-old journalist for the country’s national broadcaster in Wellington, the sense of loss was constant.

“It was goodbye dinner after goodbye dinner, leaving drinks after leaving drinks, and I think that started to take a toll.”

For her, the city’s beauty came from its people. “If what made Wellington so great as a place to live and work was my community, and I feel I don’t have that here now and there’s a lot less people my age, what do I want to do?”

She considered moving to Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, but heard it felt empty too. She mulled London, but Britain seemed too distant. Finally, in the middle of 2023, she moved to Melbourne.

The flow of departures from New Zealand has accelerated since then. Now, record numbers of people are leaving the country as cost-of-living pressures increase and residents grapple with limited job opportunities. Provisional figures from Statistics NZ show a net loss of 56,500 citizens in the year to April – up 12,000 from the previous record.

Separate figures indicated that half of those who left New Zealand recently moved to Australia. Now, experts are worrying that a grim economic picture means departing Kiwis may not come back.

“We can’t compete with the salaries in Australia,” says David Cooper, director of immigration firm Malcolm Pacific. “Some people view that New Zealand has gone backwards, and so they’re voting with their feet.”

Frame says it “just felt like bad news after bad news” in New Zealand, and in Melbourne she found a higher-paying job in communications and a flat with lower rent.

“I could be happy here for a long time. I think I will be here for the long run.”

‘Grass looks a lot greener’ in Australia

New Zealand has a tradition of young residents travelling for an overseas experience. According to Gareth Kiernan, chief forecaster at economics consultancy Infometrics, part of the reason the recent surge hit record levels is a backlog of people travelling abroad after delaying their plans due to travel restrictions and uncertainty amid the pandemic.

Among them is Joshua Scott, who weathered the pandemic in Wellington, then decided to move to the UK. The prospect of European adventures and a larger city beckoned, and the 29-year-old settled in east London last year, and found a job in healthcare.

The shift was made easier by the number of New Zealanders making a similar move. “I haven’t really made new friends here, beyond getting to people that I sort of knew from Wellington,” he says.

But much of the record flow out of New Zealand, according to Cooper and Kiernan, is also due to the growing attraction of Australia. As New Zealand inches out a recent recession, many citizens have a perception that the cost of living is lower and salaries higher in Australia, says Keirnan, which might lead to more permanent shifts.

“It’s all very heavily in favour of people getting across the Tasman, because the grass looks a lot greener,” he says.

Emily Partridge is one of those who recently left New Zealand in search of opportunity. The 26-year-old, who grew up in Dunedin, made a professional calculation when the clothing company she worked for was sold to new owners.

“I was working in a relatively small industry in a small country,” she says. “Looking into the future five or 10 years, I’d think: I’m not sure how much growth there is down the line.”

She decided earlier this year to move to Sydney, where she works for a perfume brand.

“In New Zealand, you could either work for a cool company and get paid quite poorly, or you could work a job that’s less exciting but pays well. In Australia, because the economy is better, I can do both of those things.”

Fears New Zealanders won’t return

Maia Vieregg, a 26-year-old geologist, graduated university last year and struggled to find work in Wellington or elsewhere in the country. And when several conservative parties displaced New Zealand’s former progressive government at the last election, she felt “cynical and hopeless” about New Zealand’s future.

She had never planned to go overseas, but the combination pushed her to consider new options. In January, Vieregg moved to Newcastle – a couple of hours’ north of Sydney – where she found a job with a mining company that paid much better than anything she had seen at home. She has found Australia difficult to adjust to.

“New Zealand is a quite down-to-earth place,” she says, compared with Australia’s materialism. She plans to eventually return home – but does not expect that to happen any time soon.

Cooper worries that outflow might worsen an already severe skills shortage in the country.

“The record numbers of Kiwis leaving are not the desperate and dateless. They’re the young, skilled people,” he says.

“These are people who are well qualified, with good skills. It’s hard to attract the highly skilled people we need to replace the ones leaving.”

Kiernan agrees. “If we’re not able to keep people here because the economy isn’t going well and the cost of living is too high, it does reflect pretty poorly on our economic situation.”

For many of the young travellers, the pull of having children will probably be the driver to bring them home. Partridge does not expect to return to New Zealand unless she decides to have children, while Scott will also head back when he’s ready to start a family.

Frame, meanwhile, says: “What might bring me back is that feeling of missing my family, or a new chapter of my life starting. Or just feeling homesick for the country and the smallness of it.”

In the meantime, she does not even need to return to New Zealand to get a taste of home.

“There’s so many New Zealanders here, it’s kind of ridiculous,” Frame says. “Bumping into people from Wellington here is almost an everyday event.”