The 1960s

Page 2 – Overview

Population

In 1960 New Zealand was still in the midst of the post-war baby boom. The peak came in 1961 when 65,476 babies were born. The baby boom ended in 1964. Immigration continued, and we continued to enjoy steady population growth until an economic recession struck in 1968. During the decade, New Zealand's population grew from approximately 2.4 million to almost 2.8 million. 

Economy

New Zealand’s economic prosperity was based on secure access to the British market and high international prices for wool, which garnered more than a third of our export earnings. In late 1967 the export price for wool fell by 30%, triggering rising unemployment and inflation. Our access to the British market was also potentially compromised by the UK’s desire to join the European Economic Community. Britain's share of our exports fell from just over 50% in 1965 to 36% five years later. By 1980 it would be less than 15%. 

The average wage for full-time employees (including overtime and bonuses) at the end of 1969 was just under $50 per week (equivalent to just over $800 in 2018), an increase of $20 ($140) since 1959. The purchasing power of the minimum weekly wage for adult males ($42) was very similar to that of the adult minimum wage in 2018.

Popular culture

Following the first regular broadcasts in 1960, television soon had a great impact on life in this country. There were just 23,000 television licence holders in 1962, but more than half a million by 1968. Television shrank our world. From the comfort of our living rooms we watched the tragedy of the Wahine disaster and Neil Armstrong's ‘one small step for [a] man’ on the surface of the moon. Vietnam became the first television war. Kiwi kids’ new heroes starred in American westerns such as High Chaparral, Gunsmoke and Bonanza.

In the mid-1960s local television shows like Let's go and C'mon boomed as New Zealand youngsters dressed up like their shaggy overseas counterparts. These shows gave local musicians the opportunity to strut their stuff. Many made a name for themselves by copying the music and style of the big international acts.

The joy, dizziness and sheer optimism of the 1960s youth experience was captured by Ray Columbus and the Invaders, whose single 'She's a mod' became a smash hit on both sides of the Tasman in 1964. Others viewed this new youth culture with disdain. They were appalled by the hysteria associated with the Beatles tour of 1964. They disliked how young New Zealanders adopted the music and fashion trends of subcultures such as Britain’s ‘mods’ and ‘rockers’. Fights between these rival groups were not uncommon. The 1966 killing of Christchurch rocker Les ‘Lightning’ Thomas by Bill Gilchrist, a mod, gave weight to such fears. Gilchrist’s trial exposed a dark underbelly of rival teenage gangs engaged in sex, drinking and brawling.

Protest

The 1960s are synonymous with protest. Home-grown protest developed around environmental issues associated with the Manapouri hydro scheme. New Zealand's anti-nuclear policies of the 1980s can be traced back to opposition to French atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons in the Pacific from 1966. Our anti-nuclear stand did not yet extend to nuclear ship visits. The nuclear-powered and -armed submarine USS Halibut was greeted warmly when it visited in 1960.

The major protests of the decade were centred on the Vietnam War. Following our decision to send combat forces to oppose the communist insurgency in South Vietnam in 1965, opposition to the war intensified. Thousands mobilised to demand an end to our involvement. The New Zealand Monthly Review observed in 1965 that New Zealanders were ‘behaving in ways quite uncharacteristic of the species as recognised by their ancestors’.

The All Blacks toured South Africa in 1960 with no Māori players despite more than 150,000 outraged New Zealanders signing a petition in opposition. The South Africans came here in 1965 with little protest, but a proposed All Black tour of South Africa in 1967 was called off by the National government. When the All Blacks finally returned to the republic in 1970, Māori were included – classified as ‘honorary whites’ to get around South Africa’s racially based laws.

Politics

The new music, fashions and politics of the 1960s seemed to challenge the conservative values of ‘the establishment’. Some could be forgiven for thinking this challenge largely passed us by. The National Party led by ‘Kiwi’ Keith Holyoake swept to power in 1960 and remained there until 1972. National aimed to preserve the economic prosperity and general stability of the period. Holyoake's political and social vision was best summed up by his 1963 election slogan, ‘Steady as she goes’. The longevity of his administration suggests that he had correctly read the mood of mainstream New Zealand.

Governments were formed on the basis of which party won the most electorates (the ‘first past the post’ system). National and Labour's stranglehold on Parliament was broken briefly in 1966 when Social Credit candidate Vern Cracknell won the Hobson seat. Normal service was resumed in 1969 (when the voting age was lowered from 21 to 20) when National regained the electorate. In 1969 the number of seats in Parliament was increased from 80 to 84. Four seats continued to be reserved for voters registered on the Māori roll.

Rugby, racing and beer

In the 1960s, ‘rugby, racing and beer’ held sway in New Zealand culture.

Rugby was the dominant sporting and cultural force, largely unchallenged on or off the field. The Ranfurly Shield was the ultimate symbol of provincial supremacy. During the decade, Auckland, Taranaki and Hawke’s Bay all had long tenures in possession of the log o’ wood.

This was also a golden age for All Black rugby. They lost just four tests out of 41 and suffered only one series defeat, to South Africa in 1960. This was the era of full-scale tours. The All Blacks’ 1963-64 tour of the British Isles, France and Canada involved 36 matches played over four months. This was also the age of amateurs, and such tours imposed a significant financial strain on those selected for them. Men from this era such as the Meads brothers, Wilson Whineray, Kel Tremain, Brian Lochore, Ken Gray and Waka Nathan achieved legendary status.

Kiwis attended racecourses in large numbers and many also frequented their local TAB. In the early 1960s we spent more than £50 million annually gambling on horses.

New Zealanders drank 71 litres of beer and stout per person each year. Until 1967 a good deal of this was consumed during the 'six o'clock swill'. The consumption of wine received a boost in 1961 when it was allowed to be served in restaurants for the first time.

Other sports

While rugby was king, other sportsmen gained international recognition. Peter Snell established himself as one of the greatest middle-distance runners of all time when he backed up his 800 m gold at the 1960 Rome Olympics with the 800 m/1500 m double four years later in Tokyo. He also set world records for 800 m and the mile in 1962.

Bob Charles achieved a notable first for New Zealand golf when he won the 1963 British Open. Denny Hulme was crowned the champion Formula One racing driver in 1967. In spite of New Zealand's lowly test status, John Reid established himself as one of cricket's premier all-rounders.

Marise Chamberlain became the first New Zealand woman to win an Olympic track medal when she ran third in the 800m at Tokyo. But for a stumble near the finish line she would have won gold at the 1966 Commonwealth Games.

How to cite this page

'Overview', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/culture/the-1960s/overview, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 9-May-2018

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