(Photo: Māoriland Film Festival)

It’s time for Māori millennials to take the lead, writes researcher and academic Dr Wiremu Manaia.


The government’s response to the pandemic has been, for the most part, very appropriate. But it can only do so much. 

If the country is to survive this situation relatively unscathed, then the general public will need to play their role — and this is where Māori families may struggle, not only because of what’s happening today, but also because of what happened 70 years ago.

Baby boomers 

In the 1950s and ‘60s, the country was in the throes of a baby boom and Māori went through a rapid population growth. Fertility rates were high, mortality had declined, and Māori living conditions — particularly housing, income, employment and sanitation — had improved markedly.  

The Māori population grew by more than 4 percent per year which was almost double those of the preceding two decades. Māori also changed from a mostly rural people to a predominantly urban one. By 1971, 71 percent of Māori lived in urban areas compared with just 26 percent in 1945.  

The 1970s was also a seminal decade for Māori. The total Māori fertility rate dropped from 5.1 children per woman to just 2.8 — a decline that was mainly driven by widespread adoption of the contraceptive pill and sterilisation. 

This not only ended decades of high Māori fertility, but also reduced Māori whānau resources for elderly welfare and care. 

Rapid Māori population growth of the 1950s and ‘60s, followed by the drastic Māori fertility downturn in the 1970s, combined with the fact that Māori are now living longer, has had a major impact on the status of the Māori population today. The Māori population demographic of that time was a pyramid with 45 percent of Māori aged under 16. Today, that pyramid is inverted. 

Māori are now a progressively aging population. In 2018, the Māori population was about 744,800, but it’s estimated to reach about 790,000 by 2025 and 830,000 by 2030. 

Most Māori live in metropolitan areas and a quarter of the Māori population live in Auckland. Living in urban areas is expensive, but even in rural areas, the financial demands of daily living have increased dramatically.

Māori whānau 

Traditionally, Māori whānau looked after their own. But, these days, two-parent Māori working families have become a necessity and an accepted reality. 

More Māori are now reaching retirement age than ever before and they’re living longer. 

But smaller Māori families have limited capacity to take care of their own — and now we have Covid-19, a virus that elderly people are particularly susceptible to. It’s a perfect storm for an epidemic, and we’re heading into it relatively unprepared.  

So what can Māori do? 

A big area of impact will be our tikanga. Tangihanga, pōwhiri, wānanga and hui, just to name a few, will have to change how they operate. Everything on our marae will slow down and virtually cease. Some may close their doors completely until the pandemic passes. Traditional practices of whanaungatanga, manaakitanga and kaitiakitanga will have to be scaled back, which will be difficult for older Māori generations who practise these protocols regularly.

Self-isolation lifestyles will make technology an even more important living and coping mechanism in daily life, but, unfortunately, technology is not a strength among our older generations. And many Māori households have very little technology and limited access to the online network.   

As a first step, and like every other household across the country, Māori will need to take care of their own. During the 1918 influenza epidemic, iwi and hapū were the saving grace for Māori, especially with orphaned Māori children in the post-epidemic years. More than 100 years later, Māori whānau will provide the pathway to recovery, but not in the same way. 

Māori whānau capacity has changed over the last five decades but resilience is one area of Māori whānau dynamics that has prospered, and it’s been driven by Māori achievement. Although socio-economic inequities and disparities in health status between Māori and non-Māori still exist, Māori are better off now than at any other time since colonisation. 

Māori leadership 

We have more Māori in positions of leadership and influence across a range of critical areas including education. Although the vast majority still lag behind non-Māori, a higher percentage of Māori are staying at school longer and are successfully completing higher level qualifications in secondary and tertiary. 

Those in positions of influence now are mobilising in ways we’ve not been able to do in the past, and a critical mass of Māori leading positive change is building up. Iwi and hapū will do their part, and so, too, will Māori medical and health experts like the National Māori Pandemic Group, Te Roopu Whakakaupapa Uruta. 

But long-term, incremental change will come from our greatest resource, the Māori millennial generation.     

The quality of Māori whānau resilience will become increasingly evident during these trying times, but it hasn’t happened by accident. Years of affirmative action policies with Māori being given opportunities to close the gap with non-Māori New Zealanders is starting to make an impression on New Zealand society. 

And, like most endeavours of this kind, it has taken generations to achieve change. 

Māori millennials

The millennial generation are often referred to as entitled and narcissistic. Raised to believe they could be anything, and do anything, they’re not lacking in self-confidence and self-esteem. And that’s a good thing. Having a positive self-image is about having the ability to adapt to new situations, or resilience.  

Covid-19 has meant Māori are now experiencing an era of unprecedented change that will test our resilience and challenge our resolve — but, if we’re to survive this as Māori, the Māori millennial generation will be the key. Fortunately, they’re better equipped for it than their baby-boomer grandparents, great-grandparents, and even their parents. 

There are growing numbers of them. In 2017, over 1 million adult New Zealanders identified as millennials and, of those, 21 percent identified as Māori, although most of them identified with more than one ethnic group.

The online world

Millennials are the functional generation in an environment we’re all being forced to occupy: the online world. 

While authorities are peddling advice and suggestions for managing mental health “cabin fever”, millennial generations are wondering what we’re all worried about. The world they’ve occupied in their bedrooms late at night has now moved in to the rest of the house. Parents are now tenants in a world of millennial landlords and, for the vast majority of them, the rules are new.

We’ve passed the halfway point in our country’s initial lockdown, and while the number of new infections has started to fall, it’s expected to be at least another four to eight weeks before the country may return to any semblance of normality. Even then, it will have to be a carefully planned transition.  

In the meantime, our Māori millennials are showing us how to survive in these strangest of times. 

For the first time ever, older Māori generations are going to have to watch and learn from their children and grandchildren. Not because we want to, but because we have to. 

Only time will tell whether we learn anything — but there’s a very good chance we may never be the same again.


Dr Wiremu Manaia (Ngāti Maniapoto and Ngāti Awa) is a manager and senior lecturer at Manukau Institute of Technology in South Auckland. He has a background in education and management, and has worked in Māori development for 25 years, including as a senior policy analyst for the Ministry of Health, a Māori Health manager for the ADHB, a regional manager for the Ministry of Education and as a senior university academic and researcher. He has degrees in education, psychology, Māori studies and health science, including a PhD in Māori health research. 

© E-Tangata, 2020

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