Alie Benge, a writer, and David Coffey, a mental health worker, were browsing apartment listings in Barcelona and dreaming of a getaway when it hit them. The couple, both 33, had been planning an overseas trip for some time. When they looked at long term accommodation, they realised it was more affordable than what they were paying for shared flats in Wellington – a city with a reputation for chilly, ageing housing stock and soaring rents.
“We were looking at places to stay on Airbnb – this is in Barcelona – and it’s cheaper than what I would pay here in Wellington,” David says. If they were paying so much, why not do so in one of the world’s biggest cities?
“The cost of living here is horrific,” he says. “It gets to the point of, if you’re flushing money down the toilet … do you want to do that somewhere you’ve spent your entire life? Or do you want to go try something else, experience something else?”
“Yeah,” Alie chimes in. “If we’re going to be paying a fortune for living costs, we might as well be doing that in London.”
New Zealand has been an enviable haven through the heights of the coronavirus pandemic. Tens of thousands of residents flocked home in the first year of the outbreak – and many more wished to, but were locked out by tough border restrictions.
In 2020, the country reported its largest net gain of citizens since the 1970s. Now, those fortunes are changing, with tens of thousands poised to leave. Government documents from this week estimated that 50,000 would leave over the next year, but the number could swell to 125,000 if the stacked-up young people who had delayed post-graduation trips left too.
Each member of the exodus has their own reasons. Some, feeling burned out by the claustrophobia of pandemic life, are simply itching to try something new. A switch to remote work has freed some up to live offshore. Others are young graduates taking long-delayed “overseas experience” trips – a rite of passage for many middle class New Zealanders.
But almost all of those who spoke to the Guardian said as well as the tug of big cities and new experiences, they were also being pushed by challenging circumstances at home: rising living costs, inflation, stagnant wages and an unaffordable housing market.
“I’m at this point where I would love to have housing stability and that’s just not a possibility for me here,” says Rebecca, 39, a marketing worker in Auckland. She’s weighing a move to Melbourne, where she has a number of friends and wages are higher.
House prices rose more than 27% last year, and hit an average of $1m, far beyond reach of many New Zealanders. “As a single person it’s impossible to buy,” Rebecca says. “It just kind of feels like I’m not really getting anywhere, to be honest.”
“Through the pandemic and everything I was looking to buy a house and saving to buy a house – and that’s gotten harder and harder and also more depressing,” says David Coffey.
While the market’s runaway growth is now slowing, rising interest rates mean some buyers are growing squeamish at the thought of unmanageable mortgage repayments.
The country is also in the grip of a sharply rising cost of living: in March, food prices were up 7.6% from last year, with fruit and vegetable prices up 18%. For some residents, those are enough to tip them over into seeking greener pastures – and higher wages – in London or Australia.
“I bought a lettuce the other day, and it was $6,” Rebecca says. “I’m sure it’s, you know, hydroponically grown, but it just feels like everything is getting harder and harder, and tighter.”
Her sense of gloom is shared by many New Zealanders: according to polling in March, economic optimism was slipping: just 28% were optimistic about the economy and 53% pessimistic.
Elle, a 30-year-old designer in Wellington, is moving to England with her partner next year. “The industry is very small in New Zealand, for designers. You can’t buy a house here. Job options are pretty limited, even in a city. It’s kind of like: where do you go for more?”
For many, the easiest leap is to Australia, which doesn’t require work visas for New Zealanders and is by far the largest recipient of Aotearoa’s émigrés.
Amy*, 42, is an events manager and single parent living in the South Island. She’s planning a move to Australia or the Pacific, where she says she can almost double her salary in the events or hotel management sector. As her son’s sole provider, she says, “I would quite like to earn more money, which is just not going to happen in the industry that I work in New Zealand. The main reason to go is so that I can just give my son better opportunities.
“The timing for me is a combination of things. It’s not just the cost of living that’s forcing me to think about doing this – it’s [also] that I want to give my child some other experiences, and I’m at a point in my life where I want to be earning more money. If that means that we head off somewhere else, that’s what we’ll do.”
“It’s not surprising to me that there’s an expectation of a return to the emigration of New Zealand citizens,” says Prof Francis Collins, director of the Te Ngira Institute for Population Research at the University of Waikato. “That continues a pattern that has been established for several decades, and has been particularly sharp in periods where either there are economic recessions, or where there are issues around inequality of opportunity.”
New Zealand already has a startlingly high portion of its population living overseas – up to 1 million, or 20% of the resident population, the third highest in the OECD. In the past, Collins said, high emigration tended to happen during high unemployment. Now, however, unemployment is at just 3.2% – and a net loss could lead to shortages of skills in specialised areas.
That could create challenges for the Ardern government, which earlier in its term was focused on an “immigration reset” to restrict “low skill” labour and ease pressures on housing or infrastructure.
“When our borders fully open again, we can’t afford to simply turn on the tap,” minister Stuart Nash said in a May 2021 speech. “The pressure we have seen on housing and infrastructure in recent years means we need to get ahead of population growth.” Now, the government may face problems from the opposite direction – some sectors are already complaining of skills shortages from a lack of labour.
Earlier in the month, Kiwibank projected net 20,000 migration losses, which the bank warned would hit economic growth. “It is concerning because we’re losing people from a tight labour market already,” Kiwibank chief economist Jarrod Kerr said. “We think it’s a big issue.”
While economic factors are motivating many New Zealanders, some say they’re also simply feeling ready for change. Aotearoa’s isolation was an enormous advantage in pandemic management. But after two years of closed borders, disrupted supply chains and intermittent lockdowns, some are keenly feeling that isolation, and craving connection with the rest of the world.
“I think there’s almost a kind of existential loneliness,” says Alie. “Not just [that] we’re all kind of lonely because we’ve been stuck in our homes, but also New Zealand has never felt smaller or further away from the rest of the world.”
And, while most are planning to leave for at least the medium term, to spend several years overseas, they also believe they’ll one day be back. If absence does make the heart grow fonder, New Zealanders have had very little opportunity to be absent in the last two years.
“When we decided we wanted to travel, I remember sitting there and thinking – I’d like to feel homesick,” David says. “It might sound weird. But I want to be at a distance, and appreciate New Zealand again.”