What it means to be a New Zealander has changed dramatically in the 50 years since Paul Henry was born and is projected to change even more.

In the March 1961 Census, seven months after Henry was born in Auckland, 99 per cent of the resident population was classified as either European (92 per cent) or Maori (7 per cent), with the latter required to show at least half "Maori blood".

Long-established Chinese, Indian and Pacific minorities shared the remaining 1 per cent.

Official ideas about ethnicity have changed and Statistics NZ now lets people claim multiple ethnicities with no official "blood" requirements, so the figures add up to more than 100 per cent.

Public attitudes have changed too and at the last Census in 2006, 11 per cent of the population refused any ethnic label and claimed to be plain "New Zealanders". Researchers found that about 90 per cent of them had previously been classified as European.

But even adding in all the self-described New Zealanders, only 77 per cent of the population now claim "European" or "New Zealander" as either their sole ethnicity or one of their ethnicities. In contrast, in the 45 years since 1961:

* Those claiming Maori ethnicity doubled to 15 per cent.
* Those claiming Pacific ethnicity multiplied 12-fold to 7 per cent.
* Those claiming Asian ethnicity multiplied 18-fold to 10 per cent.

By 2026 Asians are expected to equal the Maori population with about 16 per cent each, Pacific people will be up to 10 per cent, and Europeans will be down to 70 per cent.

Waikato University researcher Dr Tahu Kukutai, who has a $300,000 Marsden grant to investigate the treatment of ethnicity in censuses around the world, said Henry's comments illustrated "a disconnect between this rapidly changing demography and this Eurocentric analysis of what being a New Zealander is. What he is saying is clearly out of step with the demographic realities."