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Jobs and the economy have been big topics this election season. Candidates are looking for ways to woo young voters. So we wondered how young people are faring in this economy. Are there economic opportunities for all the passionate young creatives who move to the Portland area? OPB’s Amanda Peacher visited with 20-somethings to see how they’re making ends meet doing what they love.
Mara Reynolds’s hands are caked in dirt, and that’s just how she likes it. They remind her of her mother, a florist.
“I always remember thinking I want hands that do things ... and now I do I guess," she says.
Reynolds is attacking a patch of weeds here at the Seedlot Community Garden. At the entrance, there’s a hand-made sign that reads, “The Gardener Is In.” Last year, this plot of land in Southeast Portland was a vacant lot. Reynolds asked the landlord about creating a community garden.
“I complimented him on the small garden that was growing next to the apartment in the lot, and I said, 'Well, it would be great to have the whole thing be a garden I’d be happy to deal with that if you’re looking for someone.'”
The landlord is letting her use the lot until the real estate market picks up. Now, Reynolds uses the land to teach kids and adults about growing all kinds of vegetables and fruit.
Like many young people who flock to Portland, Reynolds has figured out how to work at what she loves. The Seedlot is a volunteer project for now, but Reynolds is also a part-time teacher at another garden in town. As you might expect, she doesn’t have much work in the winter, so she mends and sews clothing on the side. It’s piecemeal, but it works.
"I have very modest needs," Reynolds says. "I keep my life very simple, and grow as much of my food as I can, and I fix everything that I can.”
Reynolds is not alone in this lifestyle. We heard from young people who get by doing all kinds of interesting things -- making recycled jewelry, sewing bike bags or performing in a circus.
Portland’s official unemployment rate hovers at about 8 percent. Researchers at Portland State University say the city has one of the highest rates of part-time employment among 50 top metro areas. The percentage of people who are self-employed is one of the highest in the nation.
"You put all that together and what you see is a job market here for young college graduates that is consistently challenging," says Greg Schrock, professor of urban studies and planning at PSU. He’s been studying what he calls the “Portandia hypothesis, ” after the TV show that called the city the place “where young people go to retire.”
Do young people find work here after coming to live out their dreams? And do they stay in the metro area long term?
"There’s relatively little evidence that people are leaving," Schrock says. "For whatever reason, however they’re doing it, people are not voting with their feet to move to some other place that may be a more robust job market.”
He says that that might be in part because it’s less expensive to live in Portland than, say, San Francisco.
Chris Hackett is a 29-year-old freelancer. He says finances are always tight, but one way he keeps expenses low is by being strategic about housing.
“You look for something that’s just kind of slummy," he says. "It’s not quite a slum house but it’s like really shoddy repairs but it keeps the rent cheap."
Hackett finds occasional animation, design and IT work on video projects and TV commercials. When he moved to Portland six years ago, he applied to hundreds of jobs.
"I ended up working for a hydraulic parts distributor, and that was just kind of horrible … and then I met a guy, I hadn’t met any nerds in Portland ... and I met a guy."
Was he looking for nerds?
“Not necessarily," Hackett says. "But you know each other when you see each other."
It turns out this nerd friend was an IT worker who was moving away, and Hackett was able to pick up some jobs that he left behind. Gradually Hackett has scraped together more work.
"Here in Portland, you know it's small town, so it's tough to break in. I've thought about leaving before, when times are tough, but I've never been able to actually leave, because I think I'm just in love with the area.
PSU's Schrock says that Hackett's sentiments align with migration data for Portland. Schrock thinks that the young people who stick it out in Portland are an asset that the city should capitalize on.
"As a region we haven’t really figured out what to do with these folks. Traditional economic development strategies of trying to attract companies -- it isn’t necessarily working.“
But in the meantime, the young creatives in Portland seem to be figuring out not only how to get by, but how to do what they love most.
Back at the Seedlot Community Garden, Reynolds picks a ripe raspberry and pops it into her mouth. “I really want to make it possible for kids to grow up growing their own food and knowing what work that means."
Sources for this story came to us through OPB’s Public Insight Network. Share your story at www.opb.org/publicinsight/