THE VERDICT is in: Portland is not the place where young people go to retire. We're the place where young people go to be underpaid and marginally employed.
Two Portland State University professors spent their summer digging into the "Portlandia hypothesis"—the TV show's relentlessly repeated joke that Portland is the place where young people go to retire—and found, instead, a moderately bleak portrait of employment for the young, college-educated people of our fair city.
Portlanders 25 to 39 years old with college degrees are working or looking for work just as much as their peers elsewhere in the country, according to the study, but the group has the highest underemployment rate of any major city in the country: 20.2 percent work fewer than 35 hours a week. Even when working full time, year round, young, college-educated people here are paid on average $4,400 less than the national norm.
"There were a lot of people citing anecdotal evidence of the Portlandia adage, a lot of people suggesting that there's a lack of productivity among young people here," says study co-author professor Jason Jurjevich. "We say no, that's not what's happening."
"It's not just about people taking shitty jobs," adds professor Greg Schrock, bluntly. "It's about people taking shitty pay for the same jobs.... Equating financial success with ambitiousness is not a safe thing to do."
People are paid less here for several reasons. Those include the lower cost of living in Portland compared to other West Coast cities, and that when the economy tanks—Portland's economy declined steeper, but recovered faster, than the rest of the country's—employers axe full-time gigs in favor of benefit-free part-time jobs.
But one of the biggest reasons we're paid less here is no surprise: Young people just keep coming. While other cities like Austin and Denver saw booms and busts of young migrants, Portland has been one of the top 10 most popular destinations for young college graduates in every census survey since 1980. With a lot of smart people competing for entry-level jobs, employers can offer lower wages.
And though good jobs are difficult to come by, those migrants aren't moving away very quickly.
"The out migration just isn't happening. People here may not necessarily be happy to be paid less, but they're content," says Schrock. People stick around because the city is relatively cheap—you can hack it here on a part-time job—and because, well, they like Portland's culture, environment, and lifestyle. College-educated young Portlanders are essentially sacrificing a bit of their paycheck to live here.
The flipside of our underemployment rate is that Portlanders are extremely entrepreneurial. Whether by choice or because of a lack of jobs, Portland has one of the highest self-employment rates in the country. We can poke fun at food carts and DIY culture, but economic data shows almost 12 percent of the city makes a living by making their own job. Of the 13,481 Portland-based companies that report their number of employees, a whopping 12,137 have 10 or fewer employees.
And that's where the city is focusing its job-creating efforts, says Peter Parisot, the mayor's director of economic development.
"It's incredibly difficult to recruit a Fortune 500 company to move to your downtown. What we look at is growing the companies that are already here," says Parisot. The city credits its development efforts with creating or retaining 4,247 jobs during the recession, only 898 of which came from recruiting new businesses.
Young Portlanders' willingness to work fewer on-the-clock hours for less money than their peers is fine. But if the trend continues, Portland could become a self-selecting monoculture, a place where only people who can afford a pay cut will choose to live.
So what do the creators of Portlandia think of this economic analysis of their punchline? Producer David Cress says the large supply of young creative people in the city has been great for the show—they employ 150 cast and crew locally and can choose stronger candidates for entry-level gigs than they could snag in New York or LA.
But as for the "retire" line, Cress says, "It really was a joke."