April 25, 2022

A snapshot of New Zealand in the 1950s

Celebrating 65 years of BERL

In 1957 a group of professors founded BERL. How was the country they lived in different, and yet similar, to ours?

In the 1950s New Zealand experienced a period of increasing standard of living, with virtually no unemployment, and a growing economy. The country was going through the post-war baby boom, with record population growth. Cultural change was also underway, the rise of rock n’ roll was causing social upheaval, and the older generations were concerned about ‘juvenile delinquency’.

The economy

According to Statistics NZ, in 1957 real Gross Domestic Product (i.e. GDP adjusted for inflation) grew by 1.9 percent. Real economic growth also occurred in most other years throughout the 1950s. At the same time, the country had virtually full-employment, with an unemployment rate of only one percent. There was a running joke that the Minister of Labour was on a first-name basis with those collecting the unemployment benefit. 

Nonetheless, the labour force participation rate was low when compared to today. 

In 1957, only 37.6 percent of the adult population was active in the labour force. This was the result of a low participation rate of only 18 percent for women, compared to 57 percent for men. In the December 2021 quarter, the labour force participation rate was 71.1 percent, with the participation rate for women reaching 66.6 percent, and the rate for men reaching 75.6 percent.

Back in the 1950s, the annual inflation rate fluctuated more than during the past decade (leaving aside the recent spike in prices). Inflation reached a high of 10.4 percent in 1951, and fell to a low of 1.6 percent in 1957. That was before the Reserve Bank Act of 1989 which gave the Bank greater autonomy and formalised price stability as its primary objective.

International merchandise trade in the 1950s was similar in composition to today’s trade, but wildly different in terms of trade partners. New Zealand’s major exports back then, as now, were mainly from the primary sector. Much like today, the country exported large quantities of dairy, meat, wool, and wood. 

On the other hand, as the table below demonstrates, New Zealand has experienced a major change in its trading partners.

In the 1950s, the United Kingdom was by far our largest trading partner, followed by the United States, and some European countries. Since then, New Zealand has moved away from Europe and expanded trade with countries in the Asia-Pacific region. 

Share of Exports by Country 1956 vs 2021

Country % of Trade - 1956 % of Trade - 2021
United Kingdom 64.5 2.3
Australia 3.0 13.0
United States 7.0 11.0
China <0.1 33.0
Japan 1.0 5.9
South Korea <0.1 3.2
France 6.0 0.7
Belgium 2.1 0.3
Indonesia <0.1 2.1
Singapore N/A 2.0

Source: Statistics New Zealand

The people

New Zealand society has changed significantly since the 1950s. As the table below shows, back then, the country’s population was significantly less ethnically diverse than it is today. This was the result of decades of an openly discriminatory immigration policy which prioritised immigrants from Britain, Scandinavia and Northern Europe, and actively put up barriers against non-White immigrants. A Department of External Affairs memorandum from 1953 openly admitted that their policy was “against all persons who were not wholly of European race and colour”.1

It was only in the 1970s that New Zealand’s immigration policy started to shift towards a skills and merits based approach, which opened the doors to ethnically diverse migrants. It is important to note that in the table below the numbers do not add up to the total. The ethnic groups were broken up differently in the two Censuses, so it is only possible to compare those groups that were formed with a similar methodology.

Population ethnic distribution: 1956 vs 2018

Ethnicity 1956 Census Counts 1956 Census % 2018 Census* Counts 2018 Census* %
European 2,016,287 92.7 3,297,864 70.4
Māori 137,151 6.3 775,836 16.5
Pacific Peoples 8,103 0.4 381.642 8.1
Chinese 6,667 0.3 247,770 5.3
Indian 3,087 0.1 239,193 5.1
Total 2,174,062 100.0 4,699,755 100.0

*Respondents could give more than one answer

The post-war baby boom continued throughout the 1950s.

In most years, the absolute natural growth of the population (births minus deaths) reached a new record. In 1957, the absolute natural growth of the population reached 37,622, representing a 1.7 percent growth rate. By comparison, since 1973 annual growth has been smaller than in 1957, and in 2021 absolute natural growth was only 27,700, representing a growth rate of 0.5 percent.

The table below compares life expectancy at birth between different countries in the 1950s. New Zealand was doing well, with one of the highest life expectancies, compared to similar countries. This is one indication of a high standard of living. 

Life Expectancy at Birth

Country Males Females
New Zealand (1950-52)* 68.3 72.4
Australia (1946-48) 66.1 70.6
Union of South Africa (1945-47) 63.8 68.3
England and Wales (1954) 67.6 73.1
United States of America (1954) 67.4 73.6
Norway (1946-50) 69.3 72.7
Netherlands (1950-52) 70.6 72.9
Denmark (1946-50) 67.8 70.1
Sweden (1946-50) 69.0 71.6
Finland (1951-55) 63.4 69.8
France (1950-51) 63.6 69.3
Switzerland (1948-53) 66.4 70.9
Canada (1950-52) 66.3 70.8

* Exclusive of Māori

† White population 

However, there is a major caveat: the Māori population was excluded, and in the US and in South Africa, only the White population was included. Back then, the gap between Māori and non-Māori was larger. Māori had a life expectancy of 54.1 years for males, and 55.9 years for females. In the years since then, the gap has narrowed. According to Statistics NZ, in 2017-2019 the life expectancy for Māori was 73.4 years for males, and 77.1 years for females. The life expectancy for non-Māori was 80.9 years for males, and 84.4 years for females in the same time period.

The cultural scene

In the 1950s, New Zealand imported rock n’ roll from the United States. By 1957, the music genre was already the most popular in the country, especially amongst the young. One of the most famous musicians in the country was Johnny Devlin, who was known as New Zealand’s Elvis Presley. In 1958, his status as the country’s first rock star was consolidated when his cover of Lloyd Price's "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" reached first place in the New Zealand charts, and surpassed the 100,000 sales mark.

Johnny Devlin

Source: Audio Culture New Zealand

Back in the 1950s, there was no live television broadcast in New Zealand. 

The country was slow to adopt the new technology, only having its first live television broadcast in 1960. Instead, live radio broadcast was part of the average Kiwi’s daily life. Selwyn Toogood hosted the famous game show ‘It's in the Bag’, which was later adapted to TV. In the show, participants had to choose between an unknown prize inside a bag, or an amount of money. 

In the cinemas, the most popular film in 1957 was ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’. The film is set in 1943, and it tells the story of British prisoners of war who are forced to build a bridge over the river Kwai, in Japanese-occupied Thailand. The movie’s success was due to the Second World War being fresh in everybody’s memories, and also because a movie about war heroism was popular amongst a population living under the constant threat of the Cold War.

In summary, since 1957, when BERL was founded, while some things have remained the same, our society, culture, and economy have evolved in a multitude of ways. We hope to come back and update this article in 2087, after our next 65 years.