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Friday, September 21, 2012

Portland: The Place Where Young People are Underemployed

Posted by Sarah Mirk on Fri, Sep 21, 2012 at 12:58 PM

This is a ridiculous sentence to write, but two Portland State University researchers have dug into what they call the Portlandia hypothesis: Portland is a place where young people come to retire.

Yeah, it's a joke, but it's also a widespread perception of the city. The image of young people here is that we're artsy slackers who will never amount to anything except maybe crafting some sweet felt hats until we either float out to sea on DIY recycled-paper rafts or say "screw this" and move to New York to take PR jobs.

But what the researchers' pair of studies say is: That image is wrong. People don't move here to get rich, but they don't move here to retire, either.

What we have is not widespread retirement, it's chronic underemployment: During 2008-2010, Portland had the highest underemployment rate in the country among its young, college-educated residents, with 18 percent of us working less than 35 hours a week.

It wasn't just young people, either: Among Portland workers of all ages, 25 percent reported working part-time during those years.

Young people here are just as involved in the workforce as in other cities. During the height of the Great Recession (2008-2010), 89.5 percent of young, college-educated Portlanders were working or looking for work—slighly above the national average of 89.2 percent.

What we can't see from the data is whether people were actively choosing to work part time or whether they were stuck in part-time because of the lack of full-time jobs. But we can see that people are still moving here and sticking around despite getting paid less than in other cities.

If moving to Portland didn't make sense, then people would stop moving here. But this isn't a fad: Over the past 30 years, young college-educated people have moved to Portland at rates two to three times that of other cities, and unlike cities like Austin and Denver where the flood of young people has been more boom and bust, the trend hasn't steeply dropped off.

That's because it's not just fuckin' birds on things that convince people to move to Portland. People often move here because the city is cheap to live in. Public transit is more accessible and housing is cheaper than in many parts of the country. To keep my current standard of living in New York, I'd need to make $14,000 more; if I moved to San Francisco, I'd need to make $21,000 more.

If you don't have kids or own a house or have too much debt, you can hack it in Portland with a part-time job. That could definitely contribute to our underemployment numbers: Why bust your ass at two shitty part-time waitressing jobs when just one will pay the rent?

The research shows that people who stick around Portland value things besides making money. Something keeps us here despite the minimal paychecks. We like the city's politics, its environment, its culture. That's not being a slacker, that's being a person who values place, people, and quality of life over money. What's wrong with that?

Well, the researchers note, what's wrong with that is that if the current trend continues "Portland may become a place that is only accessible to an increasingly self-selected group of individuals who are 'willing to pay' for the region’s distinctive quality of life—which could cause Portland to become less diverse of a place over time."

We should become a city that where 20-somethings can earn enough money someday buy houses and have kids if they want to. Until then, we'll be the ones enjoying our mid-life retirement by working fewer hours for less pay, thank you.

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